As some of my regular readers may be aware, I was commissioned earlier this year, by the new social history imprint of Pen and Sword Books, to write a book about the impact of the first world war on the nation’s mental well-being. Shell Shocked Britain (a working title) is due to be published in 2014, marking the centenary of the beginning of WW1. I am honoured to be part of this new ‘stable’ and have been determined to do the very best job possible.
So I have been researching, pulling together reading lists and then actually getting down to some reading and yes, even writing. The book is framed by the story of my Great Uncle Alf Hardiman, who slit his ex-girlfriend’s throat and then turned the razor on himself in 1922. (I tell the story on this blog in An Unsound Mind) At the inquest it was heard that he had been involved in an air raid on London and had spent a year in hospital, never fully recovering.
That ‘first blitz’, overshadowed as it is by the horrors of the bombing in WW2 will be the focus of a chapter in the book; far from maintaining the ‘good old British blitz spirit’, Londoners, when the first novelty of seeing Zeppelins over London turned to horror as death came from the skies, were frozen with fear and then panicked. Learning more of how the population was then affected by the new phenomena of planes able to travel long distances with the intention of creating a carpet of fire (quite unsuccessfully as a rule) has been fascinating. People were said to literally die of fright and were affected for many years afterwards. As today, opinions were formed by the media. At that time it meant the newspapers, who were instrumental in fuelling the panic and demand for reprisals; for bombs to level German cities. This at a time when our commanders in the field were still convinced reconnaissance could best be undertaken by cavalry.
I have been fortunate enough to receive a gift from Historic Newspapers a company that owns the largest private archive of British newspapers in the world, dating back to 1685. They offer genuine, original newspapers that can be given as presents on birthdays or anniversaries for example. I hasten to add here that I have not been sponsored to write this post. It simply isn’t my ‘thing’ to offer advertisements on No Wriggling. The two newspapers I have in my possession are no substitute for a research trip to the newspaper archives. However, they are wonderful. Having undertaken quite a lot of reading around the subject now, it is quite clear that the Daily Graphic from June 14 1917 and the Daily Sketch from May 21 1818 were by turn feeding the terror felt by the British population at the time and showing photographs that were designed to whip up patriotic fervour. Losses were shocking but actually lighter than imagined and our air defences were fragile almost to the end of the war. To hold in my hands a paper, yellowed but otherwise perfect, full of photographs, comment and adverts offering life insurance against personal accident arising from aircraft for 20/- is a treat. There is even a name pencilled on the top for the paperboy….
I am reading a lot of books, articles and papers relating to the impact of the Great War on the British population. Ranging from the poetry and prose of Vera Brittain to psychotherapeutic research into transgenerational trauma, all of life – and history – is there. But there is little that can replace a genuine artifact from the time itself. To know what our relatives were reading in the press and the images that were presented to them of loss, destruction and grief offers an insight that can take us behind the words of historians and academics and into all the horrors imagined by those living in a world where all the old certainties were literally being crushed before their eyes.