Shell shock on film: myth or reality?

shell shockWhen I began researching and writing Shell Shocked Britain I watched the grainy, black and white film footage of shell shocked soldiers readily found on YouTube. They show a number of British soldiers filmed whilst undergoing treatment at The Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley , near Southampton or at Seale Hayne Hospital in Devon. In one episode of Jeremy Paxman’s documentary series Britain’s Great War a brief extract was used as he spoke, briefly, on the subject outside Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland (which doesn’t actually feature in any of the footage). Entitled War Neurosis 1917, the film was shot over a period of eight months and is the only surviving footage of the effect of shell shock on British soldiers in the Great War.

Arthur Hurst

Arthur Hurst

The films were directed by Major Arthur Hurst, who had volunteered for service with the Royal Army Medical Corps having established a neurology department at Guy’s Hospital in London. He went to France to see the work doctors there were doing with men diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’ and was able to travel on to witness the horrors at Gallipoli, before coming back to England to put new treatments he had learned into practice.

Pathé cameramen were used to film at both hospitals and the work they highlighted led to Hurst being lauded as a miracle worker in the press. But was he simply a good self-publicist who hid himself away in the Devon countryside to ensure his methods were difficult to verify? As I delved deeper and spoke to 21st century experts in military psychiatry, I began to view the films very differently.

Hurst’s film, whilst supposedly offering itself as a tool for training other clinical staff, is a masterpiece of promotion and marketing. One can watch it as a piece of social history, but as documentary evidence of medical treatment it seems exploitative and disturbing. Among the men filmed was Private Percy Meek, a 23-year-old man from Norfolk, who joined the army in 1913. First wounded in the thigh in May 1915, he was treated and returned to the Front later that year and served without further incident until February 1916. Hurst’s lengthy report on Meek’s case explains that the young man was stationed in a trench subjected to a period of continuous bombardment by German mortars. As the noise and anxiety became overwhelming, Meek’s comrades had to prevent him from going ‘over the top’ in panic, to attack the German position.

We first see Meek sitting, like a baby, in a straight-backed, wooden wheelchair undergoing an examination of his rigid ankles for the benefit of the camera. Yet over a period of months his voice and understanding gradually returned, and, after transferring to Seale Hayne in April 1918, his physical recovery quickened and the film shows a much healthier looking Private Meek, wearing the uniform hospital blues and running up and down the steps in front of the building. The film shows his recovery to be so nearly perfect that by June 1918 we see him supervising fellow patients in a basket weaving shop at the hospital.

Other patients include Private Preston, aged 19, who reacts to the word ‘bombs’ by running for cover under his hospital bed. Private Ross Smith has a facial spasm affecting his ears and head with violent twitches, which disappear under hypnosis, only to return with renewed violence when he wakes. Private Reid, aged 32, was buried by debris from an exploding shell and, though without physical wounds, he has become unable to move; the film shows him returned to full mobility and able to work on the hospital farm.

The simple peace of the rolling Devon countryside offered solace to the damaged men. Unlike some other hospitals, the staff at Seale Hayne refused to bully a patient into submitting to the will of the doctor and the army. Hurst was keen to ensure the dignity of the men was maintained, with no pressure to get them back to the Front at all costs. In some respects his treatments resemble present day treatments for moderate depression and anxiety. But to the frustration of his peers, Hurst would never elaborate on his methods and there were few witnesses to his successful treatment.

hurstbookHurst only detailed his methods as the Second World War entered its final stages, in his book Medical Diseases of War:

Directly the patient is admitted the sister encourages him to believe that he will be cured as soon as the doctor has time to see him…The medical officer …tells him as a matter of course he will be cured the next day. The patient is made to understand that any treatment he has already received has prepared the way, so that nothing now remains but a properly directed effort on his part for a complete recovery to take place.

This now appears to be a deception, a practice widely used as a ‘cure’ for shell shock and it was not considered an unethical practice. Fake operations to cure deafness were staged, going so far as to anaesthetise and cut patients who had been told the procedure would cure them. Frederick Mott at the Maudsley Hospital recognised that, as the war progressed towards a conclusion, the best ‘cure’ was to assure a patient that they would never be sent back to the Front.

It is hard to assess which parts of Hurst’s film are what would now be termed a ‘reconstruction’ and which are genuine. He certainly never tells the viewer. The facts of Private Meek’s trauma are undisputed, but the film, shot in just eight months, documents a recovery that took over two years. It was a similar situation with other patients on screen. Men had been asked to re-enact their symptoms, which, as they were apparently lacking a proper consciousness as they experienced them for real is worrying. Audiences, still unused to seeing ‘moving pictures’ would have taken them at face value. People still do.

Reports in the press, from ‘honest’ witnesses describe how Hurst’s cures could take just a few minutes. The descriptions of a paralysed and dumb man being ‘cured’ within 10 minutes, to the point where, simply by coughing, he can be encouraged to sing the whole of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, appear somewhat suspicious. Hurst and his team claimed that in 100 consecutive, successful treatments, they were curing, within days, men who had on average been treated in other hospitals for 11 months prior to admission. Ninety-six per cent were treated and cured in just one sitting, at an average of 54 minutes per patient. Of the four cases that required longer, all took less than four weeks. Despite these claims, it is almost impossible to establish what percentage of the men treated later relapsed.

So was Dr Hurst actually ‘a bit of a fraud’, as he has been described to me by a psychiatrist? Watch the film and see what you think. He was not a man who inflicted unnecessary pain on his patients, as other doctors did, and men responded well to the environment around the hospital. But these films are so often shown as ‘fact’ that his contribution to the study of the subject must be questioned.

Arthur Hurst has offered us a glimpse of the physical symptoms the shell shocked of the Great War experienced. But more than that? How far does the knowledge that he asked men to live through the horrors again affect our views of his work? His work was not miraculous and certainly flawed – but fraudulent? I am still unsure….

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2 Responses to Shell shock on film: myth or reality?

  1. Phil Furneaux says:

    Really interesting piece and film. I guess it’s impossible to be certain after all this time, but, although some sections have the look of Charlie Chaplin slapstick about them, I prefer to think these were recreations for film of genuine cases at a time when the availability of cameras was so limited that genuinely recording progress as it happened was not possible. I suspect substantial ‘artistic license’, but not outright fraud.

  2. amanda white says:

    Such an interesting article, Suzie. Weirdly (because not normally a wuss) I find I can’t persuade myself to click on the film. Must be a throwback to my very early childhood when men I was told not to stare at were to be seen on the common and helping at the cafe there. It was when I first heard the hushed word “shellshocked”. So even now I can’t bring myself to disobey the “don’t stare” order. How odd.

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