Passchendaele and the management of shell shock

It is 100 years since the notorious battle of Passchendaele. We now know much more about the trauma experienced by thousands of troops during the Great War and we recognise that, even into the 21st-century, service personnel can be affected by combat stress and post-traumatic stress disorder on the battlefield, and for many years after their involvement. Sadly, there is still insufficient support for those affected, and it is still difficult for men and women to come forward and talk about their symptoms, admitting fragility in such a tough environment.

Just before the battle we now refer to as Passchendaele (or the Third battle of Ypres) – fought between July and November 2017 and perhaps the most bloody and futile of the First World War – the War Office was becoming concerned at the sheer number of men breaking down with what was commonly known as ‘shell shock’. So General Haig’s adjutant, Lt Gen. Fowke, issued  ‘General Routine Order 2384’, stating that diagnoses of mental disorder were not to be made on the battlefield, instead requiring several days of observation by doctors close to the Front.

So during the Battle of Passchendaele, a tougher approach was taken. It was thought then that ‘suggestion’ could reinforce symptoms and that evacuation to a specialist hospital, or back to Britain should be a very last resort. The aim was to get a man back to the trenches – using what was referred to as ‘discipline and forceful encouragement’, and there was more prolific use of alcohol, which, they believed, made mental collapse less likely and prevent the retention of traumatic memories.

Clearing station

Men who showed symptoms of shell shock were offered time away from the battlefield. Evacuation to a specialist hospital was not to be considered until a man had spent a number of weeks under observation, in (slightly greater) comfort with the opportunity for sleep and better food rations, at a Clearing Station within ear-shot of the trenches. Their duty to their fellows in the trenches and their love of their country was reinforced and the majority did return to the front line, encouraging doctors to consider this tougher approach a success. The 1922 Committee on Shell Shock heard evidence that only 16% of cases had to be referred to specialist hospitals, and 10% were returned to England.  Just 10% of men returned to active duty, it was claimed, relapsed once and 3% more than once.

Post war there was little written on this subject by the doctors involved, and younger, more progressive doctors and psychiatrists (who were not involved in the strategy and who would undoubtedly have questioned the methods) were horrified at any suggestion that leaving a fragile man amongst his peers could lead to some form of ‘infection’ with shell shock.

But during that terrible battle, and until the end of the war, the most important factor in the treatment of shell shock was to deal with the numbers – there was an acute shortage of trained men and every available chap was needed to fight for his country. Their post-war suffering was not the first concern. In fact, it was a real worry, as politicians struggled with the amount they feared would need to be paid out in pensions for those most seriously affected.

One thing that always strikes us about those who survived the war is their silence, their reluctance to talk about their experiences. For many years, this was seen as bravery, the stiff upper lip of the British Tommy and many of the men returning to their families coped well. But we now know that not to speak of trauma, to repress it, can be deeply harmful. Levels of alcoholism, criminal activity, domestic violence and family breakdown are still higher amongst veterans even 100 years later. Giving men a break from the horror, a stiff drink and the opportunity to sleep may have helped a few, but it left many scarred for life, whether or not they ever ‘relapsed’ in the sense expressed to the committee in 1922.

The treatment of shell shock during the Great War, and the consequences for men and their families, for society as a whole and those affected in subsequent conflicts are something I researched at length for Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, and as we move into the last eighteen months of the commemorative period I believe it is desperately important that this legacy is not lost as 100 years since the Armistice approaches.

Shell Shock on the Somme: keeping the stress of war in the news

The Somme

sommeWhilst I was researching for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First world War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Pen and Sword Books October 2014),  I came to understand how, during certain periods of the war, concern about the numbers diagnosed with shell shock, and the possibility of it becoming an ‘epidemic’ grew. Never was this a greater worry than during the battle of the Somme, when official reports suggest that, in a six month period, more than 16,000 men were recorded as a casualty of war owing to the trauma they experienced during the Somme offensive that lasted from July  1st to November 2016.

They suffered the classic symptoms – mutism, blindness and deafness, facial tics, paralysis and depression, alongside nightmares – reliving the horrors night after night. My grandfather was a victim, which led to lifelong anxiety and a terror of thunderstorms. My great uncle was hospitalised for a year with war trauma and, four years after the end of the war, he committed suicide, first murdering his ex-girlfriend by cutting her throat. It is the story that inspired my book , and, as I discovered, there were many similar tragedies played out across the country in the years after the war.

Featured Image -- 5439Of course, as Shell Shocked Britain describes, even the extraordinary figure of 16,000 would be a gross underestimate. Many men were recorded as physically, rather than mentally, wounded and others did not break down until later, even many years later, when an event seemingly unrelated to their military experience would trigger a breakdown. It is important too, to note how class based was the diagnosis and record of a man’s experience. As I sat in the various libraries, researching my book, the fact that officers were more likely to be diagnosed with ‘neuresthenia’ (or a long term break down resulting from the pressures they were under) where others might be categorised as ‘Shell Shock Sick’ and therefore not a ‘real’ casualty of war, became clear. Post war, men who remained hospitalised as a result of their trauma had their pensions docked to cover their treatment, where a man with physical wounds did not, leaving many families impoverished.

The First World War was a very different kind of war to that anticipated in the heady patriotism of 1914. The battle of the Somme was one of the first full scale battles in which volunteers and conscripts took part, and they had to endure days of heavy bombardment as thousands of shells were used by both sides. They could be buried alive in the stinking mud as trenches collapsed, blown into the air by a shell or mown down by machine gun fire. The would lose many close friends, often as they stood in the same trench, and it is of little surprise to us now , when we know that even the battle hardened regular troops were breaking down, that many thousands of others with less experience should find it hard to cope.

It is a subject I return to again and again as I give my talks – the sheer unfairness of the response to shell shock; the desire to ‘keep the numbers down’ in an attempt to ensure morale was not affected; the different treatments meted out depending on which hospital, which doctor and which class you were classified in – all are shaming. What is worse, in my view, is that 100 years on, things have not  changed sufficiently to prevent significant numbers continuing to suffer from what is now often referred to as ‘combat stress’. Veterans of conflict (or some ‘peace-keeping missions’) still find it is hard to ‘come out’ about any mental health problems they are experiencing and some are left with the same lifelong psychological wounds as their forbears in the Great war,  leading to alcoholism, family breakdown and ultimately, suicide.

So as I end my talks, I would just like to end this piece, marking as it does the start of that battle, with the thought that this commemorative period will come to mean little if we don’t, during the four years, work to properly understand the issues men faced then, and those our forces veterans face now. We must keep the pressure on the necessary organisations to ensure that research into the causes of and treatments to alleviate the symptoms of combat stress, PTSD or whatever we now choose to call it is properly funded. Charities are finding themselves overwhelmed as the MoD and NHS fail to meet the needs of men and women affected by war trauma. And the sort of legacy  left by the terrible crisis in the Middle East and the horrors experienced daily by civilians and troops in the war zone is incalculable.

So, even whilst the madness of the political situation Britain currently faces seems to hog the limelight, be sure to remember what happened 100 years ago, and consider the horrors still witnessed that leave a psychological scar that may never heal.

Shell Shocked Britain is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available from their website HERE or on Amazon HERE. It can also be ordered from any bookshop.

 

From shell shock hospital to magical community – my trip to Seale Hayne

11958244_10154172096635031_9052966308211887393_oLast week I was lucky enough to be invited to Seale-Hayne Hospital, near Newton Abbot in Devon, to meet Ray Bartlett, Chair of the Seale Haynians, who has a special interest in the role of Seale-Hayne as a military hospital during the Great War. The building is now run by one of Britain’s oldest charities, Hannah’s (run by the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust) which is ‘dedicated to empowering children, young people and adults with profound physical and learning disabilities, providing them with life-changing opportunities and advocating their needs…… challenging societal beliefs and cultural acceptances surrounding disabled people with the aim of making disability incidental.’

Arthur Hurst
Arthur Hurst

I have written about Seale-Hayne before, as I researched the work of Dr Arthur Hurst there for both Shell Shocked Britain and a lengthy article for Britain at War magazine, so I was thrilled to be able to appreciate the beautiful buildings first hand. Hurst was the doctor behind the grainy black and white films detailing the experiences of men admitted suffering from the effects of shell shock and he made claims for a cure rate of around 90%, a figure that has been challenged along with his methods. Much of the controversy seems to be caused by a 21st century determination to judge methods used 100 years ago by present day standards. This applies not just to the treatment regime but to the making of documentary films, and it has infuriated Ray Bartlett, and others on the research team working to find out more about the men who spent time at the hospital in 1917 and 1918.

images (1)Having discussed this controversy in a previous post Shell Shock on film – myth or reality, I won’t detail it again, but the matter is complex. Ray was generous with his time and I enjoyed hearing first hand his enthusiastic defence of the doctor.  Real or reconstructed, the symptoms exhibited by the men on the films are as described in much of the documentary evidence of the time, and Hurst’s use of hypnosis and suggestion achieved its greatest success in the reduction of ‘somatic’ or physical symptoms – facial tics, contractures, sensory impairment for example. How far he ‘cured’ men of the impact of the psychological trauma of war is certainly debatable. Ray and the team have uncovered success stories, particularly that of Percy Meek, the ‘star’ of the films, but the psychiatrists of the First World War were notoriously bad at follow-up, and the numbers breaking down post war suggest that for many, respite was short-lived.

11951526_10154172096655031_4646655159308305315_oRay Bartlett thinks Seale-Hayne is magical, and having visited it I have to agree with him. The men treated for shell shock were given the opportunity to work on the farm land around the hospital, rest in the grounds and use the workshop space to gradually rebuild their skills at woodwork, pottery and basket making. The views across the rolling Devon countryside are stunning (although there is concern that housing developments are encroaching at an alarming rate) and the peace and quiet can only have been beneficial to the traumatised minds of men sent home from the Front so desperately damaged.

horticulture.1024x384What is so significant though is how, despite being housed in buildings that spent much of the 20th century as an agricultural college (the purpose for which it was built, before it was briefly used as a military hospital), Hannah’s has somehow taken on the mantle of Hurst’s work nearly 100 years ago. People with profound disabilities have opportunities to work alongside members of the local community in areas dedicated to horticulture and creative arts. Art exhibitions, small creative businesses and story telling areas sit alongside sports facilities, hydrotherapy pool and a polytunnel. Psychological therapies are available, as is accommodation for respite care. The similarities to Hurst’s mission are significant, but because it is the 21st century, there is a bistro, shop and other ways to support the building financially, offering meeting and conference facilities.

11057379_10154172096645031_2317976920443704293_oI spent some time in the Old Library, sitting with Ray in an environment that is redolent of the original Edwardian atmosphere and I saw the small archive they have built up, much of which is currently on display in the Newton Abbot Museum’s First World War exhibition sited in the Great Hall. The Seale-Haynians and Hannah’s are keen to hear from anyone descended from patients or staff at the hospital, or anyone with a story of that time to share and I hope to be able to help them with some of the family history research necessary to identify the families of patients they know to have been treated there.

887457_10154172096630031_1886468922130911862_oI would like to thank Ray and Hannah’s for welcoming me, and I was thrilled to have my photo taken on the very steps down which the men are filmed taking the first footsteps to some kind of recovery. I was surprised to find architecture so unchanged over a century, and one could genuinely feel that should ghosts exist, the spirits of those tormented men who sought help from Dr Hurst could be roaming the high-ceilinged corridors and rooms of the old building.

Shell Shocked Britain has offered me the opportunity for some wonderful experiences, and the visit to Seale-Hayne was one of the loveliest.

Guest post: A Nurse at the Front – Edith Appleton, WW1 nurse and diarist – by Dick Robinson

Today I am really pleased to welcome Dick Robinson to No wriggling out of writing. Many people have asked me about how the nurses who tended the wounded soldiers, and those men suffering from’shell shock’ coped with the trauma they experienced. I was contacted by Dick after I gave a talk on Shell Shocked Britain and I was fascinated by his story. Here he uses the diary written by his great aunt Edith Appleton (published as A Nurse at the Front) to offer a vivid description of a woman at war….

EdieHead12 September 1916:   “I sent 17 of my shell shocks off to Havre yesterday where they are to receive special treatment. Should have liked to keep them here – treating them will be very interesting. I got very sick of hospital rules yesterday and took Matron’s dog for a walk over the cliffs.  I was quite alone there and enjoyed it immensely; bathed, sat with not much on and my hair loose and read.”

Sister Edith Appleton served in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in France throughout the First World War, often close to the front line. Somehow, amongst the carnage, she wrote a daily journal which has been transcribed to produce first a website (www.anurseatthefront.org.uk) and more recently a book (A Nurse at the Front) published by Simon & Schuster in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum.

Continue reading “Guest post: A Nurse at the Front – Edith Appleton, WW1 nurse and diarist – by Dick Robinson”

‘What’s the use of worrying?’ – Letters from the First World War

Today I welcome another guest to No Wriggling – fellow Pen and Sword author Jacqueline Wadsworth, whose book ‘Letters From the Trenches – The First World War by Those Who Were There’ offers us the most moving personal stories from the pens of the ordinary people whose lives were so utterly transformed by the conflict. Having read it I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest not only in the Great War, but in humanity and in the triumph of the spirit in the most desolate of circumstances….

Edward Kensit, at home before the war with his fiancee (Courtesy of Sue Collier Jenkins)
Edward Kensit, at home before the war with his fiancee (Courtesy of Sue Collier Jenkins)

‘Had such a nice walk to some French village and had steak and onions. We marched through the lands all red with red poppies.’

You would be forgiven for thinking that this quote describes a peaceful day out in the countryside – although the word ‘march’ probably gives it away. In fact it comes from a letter written from the Western Front in May 1916, and illustrates something I learned very quickly while researching my new book ‘Letters from the Trenches’: most letters were not full of doom and gloom. Instead they were often light-hearted and humorous, written by men (and women) who tried to make the best of things despite the difficulties they faced. The quote above comes from a letter by Private Edward Kensit, a 37-year-old South African soldier who worked as a botanist during peacetime and fought with the British in France. Here’s another scene he described, while in a rest area away from the trenches – his company must have been very reassuring.

Continue reading “‘What’s the use of worrying?’ – Letters from the First World War”

Post-book blues? On losing the will to write…

don_t-be-a-slave-to-writer_s-blockWriter’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” — Philip Pullman

That is us told then…those of us who think ourselves writers.  I found another contemporary writer willing to pass on their advice, Barbara Kingsolver, a woman whose work I admire as a rule:

It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.

Oh dear – she isn’t willing to collude with me either. Help……

At the risk of worrying my publishers, I can’t write at the moment. Well, to be more accurate I can’t write books at the moment. Clearly I am writing this blog post, and I have written another post for wonderful The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog on new ways of interpreting John Keats’s poetry. But nothing else seems to make sense as it leaves my brain and reaches the screen. Even my love of writing with a pencil in my favourite notebook seems to produce nothing of any meaning. It is a tough time, and worrying about it seems to make it worse.

Shell Shocked Britain, a book that took two years of research and writing, was published by Pen & Sword Books in October. Since then I have done lots of talks and have been marketing it madly on blogs, in magazines and via twitter and Facebook. It has gone well, but I feel as if it has been sucking inspiration and motivation out of me. I am not sure if other writers feel this way, although I suspect it is more than likely, but for me I know this feeling is a route into a more general depression. Scary.

I was of course anxious about the success of Shell Shocked Britain– all writers want to be read. It is a book about mental health  – looking at the shell shocked men and families who lived through the Great War 100 years ago and examining how the trauma still resonates with us today. It has sold well (I was well aware it was a niche subject, albeit an important one) so why are my anxiety levels so high that it is hard to work? Why am I railing at myself for my seeming inability to engage with the world in a healthy way?

Telling myself to ‘just write’ is not really working, unless a post like this is in some way building up to a wonderful bill-paying opportunity. I write because I enjoy it; I also write because there are bills to be paid and I have found sharing my thoughts and knowledge in articles, on blogs and in talks offers an opportunity to make an albeit meagre monthly income. Asked recently whether I would, as it were, ‘sell out’ and write commercially rather than for love then the answer had to be ‘yes’. Just because I don’t adore it doesn’t mean others won’t, and there is always the chance that an idea that really grabs my imagination will materialise from the most unexpected of places.

X2GFS_H1T1My mood is low, my anxiety high and my inspiration flown. I have two more books to write over the next two years and must start making sense of my notes. It feels terrifying. As always, my ability to procrastinate remains stubbornly expert. Perhaps I should take Neil Gaiman’s advice:

Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.”

Certainly, thinking ‘Oh my goodness I have to write 200,000 words before the end of 2016’ is giving me palpitations and preventing me from writing even 200.

As is always the case, in life as on this blog, I turn to John Keats to put me right. In Endymion, a patchily brilliant poem he wrote before his most stunning work was penned, he says:

But this is human life: the war, the deeds,
The disappointment, the anxiety,
Imagination’s struggles, far and nigh,
All human; bearing in themselves this good,
That they are still the air, the subtle food,
To make us feel existence, and to shew
How quiet death is.
from Endymion, Book II, l.153-159.

Maybe this period of post book blues is all part of the plan then, and I am simply ‘feeling’ my existence as a newly published writer.

Whatever. I just want it to stop.

Guest post: The moving memoir of a despatch rider on the Western Front

AES 1917 001Today I am lucky enough to have another fascinating guest post on No Wriggling – this time by family historian and writer David Venner, who I met after the publication of my own book, Shell Shocked Britain. Here he writes movingly of his own family experiences in the Great War, and tells us more about his great-uncle Albert Simpkin, a despatch rider and the subject of a book David will see published by Pen & Sword in the spring. 

As I write, many of the leaves on the hazel outside my window have fallen and lie scattered on the ground. In time they will decompose or get dragged below the surface by earthworms.  Other leaves remain on the tree but they have changed – from the fresh green of the spring to a faded autumnal yellow: a metaphor, perhaps, for the men who fought on the First World War battlefields. Many of them fell and lay scattered on the surface or were swallowed up, unrecognisably, by the mud. The men that survived and returned from the war were changed, some in obvious, physical ways, others with mental scars that may or not have been apparent to the observer.  A lot of them of course were damaged both physically and mentally.  Their families and the wider community were deeply and irreversibly affected too, as Suzie conveys in her thoroughly researched and well-written book, Shell Shocked Britain.

My great uncle Albert Simpkin was one of the lucky ones who survived the war. Suzie’s book has started me thinking about how his experiences might have changed him. I knew him as an old man, but as he only married into my mother’s family when aged 40, his early life and character are not easily pieced together.

AES 1914 001
Albert in 1914

He was born in 1885, the eldest child of a Salford printer and his wife. When he was 12 his mother died at the birth of a fourth child, a traumatic experience for Albert and the rest of the family. His father soon re-married and Albert apparently did not take to his step-mother – a further source of emotional stress at a sensitive age. At the 1901 census there were two young half-brothers as well as the three siblings from the first marriage. It is perhaps not surprising that, on leaving school and being apprenticed to a Salford engineering firm, Albert moved out of the family home. He lived in digs with two other young men and a landlady who, according to family stories, treated him in a much more kindly way than his stepmother did.

Albert was almost 30 when he joined up, so was not as unworldly as many of the volunteer soldiers were. His teenage traumas, work experiences and early move to independent living probably resulted in a marked degree of resilience and maturity in his approach to life. He seems to have been a natural leader, as quite early in his army training he gained a promotion to become sergeant of his section.

We can gain some further insights into his character from a very detailed diary that Albert wrote of his war service. He was a motorcycle despatch rider with the 37th Division HQ on the Western Front and so had a wide-ranging role and view of the action. He saw some horrific sights, which he records, often with a comment on his reaction:

‘Higher up the trench I came across the body of one of our men badly mutilated, one of his arms had been blown off and half of his face was missing.  The front of his tunic was shredded like wool and the ammunition in his pouches had exploded. A pretty ghastly sight but it raised no more feeling in me than one feels in a butcher’s shop.  War brings one down to the level of animals.’

He endured some atrocious conditions, spending two winters in the Ypres area and another on the Somme:

‘We are having wretched weather, raining every day … After an hour’s riding we are plastered with mud from head to foot and the only way to clean oneself is to wash down with buckets of water.’ 

‘The snow is melting rapidly and everywhere is deep in mud.  I do not know which is the greater evil, snow or mud.  Snow turns to water but mud sticks closer that a brother.’

The places in which he was billeted were often far from healthy:

‘Last night we slept in a barn … The place was alive with rats which ran over our bodies and sniffed inquisitively in our faces.  One of the fellows awoke with a yell, a rat had bitten his ear.’

‘I examined the bed I have been sleeping in and found every known species of vermin, bed bugs, lice and some I was unable to christen.  I straightaway got leave from the OC to go and get a bath after which I changed all my underclothes.’

Yet he found leave-taking a depressing time:

‘The time hung very heavily, everyone cheerful but a trifle forced. I was glad when it was time to go back to France’.

He seems to have had a well-developed sense of morality and equality. For example, he was very critical of the preferential treatment of officers:

‘Sometimes when we have money we go to Bailleul for a feed but all the best places are reserved for officers, which greatly annoyed us until we found a place of our own. Even the ‘pip squeaks’, who a year or two ago were wiping their snotty little noses on their cuffs for want of a handkerchief, may enter, while the highest NCO may not. This childish snobbery of the old army sickens me.’

Despite this critical view of the officer class, his commanding officer gave him a glowing reference on demobilisation:

‘Sgt Simpkin has discharged the duties of NCO in charge motorcycles and despatch riders

in the Company with marked success. Energetic, keen and reliable in all his work. Exceptionally good disciplinarian and leader of men.  Marked organising ability. Throughout his four years of active service he has set a splendid example of personal gallantry which has greatly influenced the personnel under his command.’

AES 1950s 001
Albert in the 1950s

Albert returned to his old job with Crossley Brothers and was chief engineer by the mid-1920s. He married and shortly afterward was sent to Argentina to set up a branch of the company in Buenos Aires.  He and his wife visited England every two or three years, staying with my family on our farm in Somerset.  In between these visits he wrote to me – long, wonderfully informative letters – with descriptions of Argentine wildlife, farming, local customs and events, and he was always interested to know about our lives in England.  He was like a substitute grandfather to me: both of my grandfathers had died before I was born. Having no family, Albert and his wife Lily made as much fuss of my brother and me as if we were their own grandchildren.

Albert never spoke of the war and at the time I never thought to ask him about it. In any case it is most unlikely that he would have wanted to talk about his experiences with a young boy – I was only 15 when he died. I would have loved to have heard how he won his Military Medal and what he did to earn the commendation “for bravery in the field”.

It is hard, thinking back to the visits to our farm and when re-reading his letters, to find any evidence of the effects of his war experiences. As an old man he walked with a limp which could have been the result of a war injury; in his diary he mentions being slightly wounded in the leg. Mentally, he never showed (or was very careful to conceal) any signs of depression, anxiety or sadness.  On the contrary, I remember him as a jolly, generous and gregarious man, with a twinkle in his eye and a vitality which belied his age. It was as if he was determined to make the most of a life that was spared when so many of his contemporaries were not so fortunate.

Despatch riderAn abridged version of Albert Simpkin’s diary is due to be published in April 2015 by Pen and Sword Books, under the title Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18.

 After graduating from Edinburgh University, David Venner had a career in countryside management. He is now a family history advisor in North Devon where he also practises rural crafts. You can follow him on Twitter: @davidvenner4,  and on the diary website:

www.despatch-rider-on-the-western-front.co.uk

Guest post: “Our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths” : A Great War Memoir

cover resizedToday I am thrilled to host a guest post by Susan Burnett, who has worked with her grandfather’s memoirs to publish a moving description of what happened to Norman Woodcock and the men who served alongside him in the First World War. The book, titled On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind  is published by Acorn Independent Press and available from Amazon here. In this post she offers snippets of the fascinating discoveries she made, many of which resonated with me as I recalled the research undertaken for Shell Shocked Britain.

My grandfather, Norman Woodcock, left me three large files of handwritten memoirs including many stories about his time in the Signals in the First World War. He took part in the landings on Gallipoli, served in the desert with Lawrence of Arabia and was there at the capture of Jerusalem. As I researched and wrote the history to accompany my grandfather’s memoirs, I soon realised how different life was for the soldiers in the Middle East compared to the trenches on the Western Front. In the desert they had to deal with extremes of heat and cold, snakes and scorpions were common, sand got into everything including the food, skin became so dry that it cracked and caused terrible sores, and at certain times of the year sand flies bit and caused fever. On one occasion, as they dug a trench in Palestine, some Australian troops came across a Roman mosaic. The mosaic was carefully removed and packed off to be displayed in a museum in Australia. The biggest difference though, was the shortage of water.

Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.
Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.

In his memoirs Norman describes the horrors of the battles he took part in, for example during one battle he describes how ‘some men were afraid, others excited, some were quite mad’. His stories also cover everyday life and in particular the thirst they constantly suffered: ‘our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths’ and on another occasion ‘death by thirst must be terrible’. He describes the problems of not being able to clean anything, including mess tins, so bully beef blended with the taste of tea and jam, and everything had the added flavour of chloride of lime, used for purification. He jokes about how he didn’t wash his shirt for three months but everyone smelled so they got used to it!

Amongst the horror and history of the war there are some great stories in the book, one of the amusing ones is of an intruder to the dugout where three of them slept near the banks of the Suez Canal:

One night we were woken up by noises outside and the sound of someone coming down the dugout steps. Wilkie called out, ‘Who is there?’ There was a sound of footsteps running up the steps. Then they came back again. As we all had our rifles ready, I said I would fire one round at the doorway – so I sighted my rifle and pulled the trigger. There was a sound of feet rushing up the steps and a gurgle of liquid. Wilkie lit a candle. The gurgling continued and I thought the visitor must be bleeding to death. The light of the candle revealed that I had pierced our tank of water, our four days supply. I jumped out of my blankets and tilted it to stop the flow. Next day, we found our visitor, it was a mongoose, an animal that can kill a snake; we had some big snakes about and could have used him if we had captured him. We were short of water until the next delivery arrived, but we were always short of water and became used to the thirst.

Once, in the heat of the desert sun, my grandfather downed tools, refusing to work until the water supply arrived. His comrades joined him and he was arrested and put on a charge. The allowance at that time was 4 pints of water a day, current water rations in the desert are 3 pints an hour! Fortunately Norman was needed for signals work. He could have been shot for disobeying an order but his charge was reduced and he was banished on a one man patrol in the desert for 3 weeks.

Once Jerusalem was captured, troops were despatched to France. Norman set sail in September 1918, arriving in Marseilles:

We had heard some stories of the misery in the trenches from lads who had joined us in Egypt, and so it was with some trepidation that, after two or three days, we boarded the train for the north.

Norman Woodcock in 1985
Norman Woodcock in 1985

Fortunately the war ended soon after he arrived on the Western Front. He wasn’t demobbed until July 1919 and the book ends with him describing the sadness he felt leaving the comrades he had been with every day for five years, and the even greater sadness he felt having to leave his horse called Timbuc: ‘the black beauty that saved my life on so many occasions’.

To find out more, visit Susan’s website at www.susanburnett.me.uk

For Remembrance & the Armistice: Some very personal messages……

labelsHave you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget’ –(Siegfried Sassoon)

At the launch of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health  on the 22nd October 2014, I offered people the opportunity to take a red luggage label, a pen and write a simple message on it, tying it to the life-sized white wooden tree installations in the event space at Foyles in Bristol. I waffled on a bit about saying something about the evening, about the book, about the nibbles etc, but I also suggested people might want to offer up the names of someone they hold in their heart, as an informal act of remembrance.

I have to say, when I looked through them after the event, I was really moved at the names and comments people had taken the time to note down. So for Remembrance Sunday, for Armistice Day and for posterity I thought I would note some of them here on my blog, and say a huge thank you to everyone who made the event such a special evening for me.

In loving memory of my dear father George who died aged 83. He was an officer in the Royal Engineers and served in the Korean War. Love you always Dad

To the past, the present and for a better future with more understanding and available help x

A cliché but Never Forget

Thinking of my Italian ancestors who fought for Italy in WWI

To Grandpa, who couldn’t bear dirt or to be dirty after the trenches…

John Cant grandfather survived died 1970. Wilfred Carr Great Uncle. Died of wounds December 1917 near Ypres.

For Herbert My grandfather who never spoke of his experiences and I was too frightened of him to ask, hoping for exciting stories no doubt. Now, when it is too late I respect his silence and regret I never got close to him

Remembering Ronald Robertson RIP

To all conscientious objectors from The Society of Friends

Remembering all those women who served abroad In memory of all the conscientious objectors

In memory of my dear and beautiful friend Susan – I will carry you in my heart to every launch, event, exhibition and special place…xx

I also had some lovely congratulatory messages, but I am so pleased that the launch and my book offered people the space simply to remember. We have so little time to think now that we are in danger of losing sight of our essential humanity and connections to each other, and to those people in our lives who have made us who we are.

The best way to market a book? Shell Shocked Britain on ‘blog tour’….

marketingWe have all seen it – on our twitter timelines, our Facebook feeds and our Instagram image lists. The endless stream of book plugs can get really frustrating, as tweets or status updates from people whose lives we connect with get subsumed in links to Amazon or personal websites where a book with great reviews  can be bought at a bargain price. Evidence suggests that if you only follow other writers, and they are the only ones that follow you back; if you just collect ‘followers’ and fail to actually engage and enthuse, or just bombard them with ‘buy me’ links, your books sales will be little influenced by anything you do on social media. Twice daily links and highlights of new reviews are fine, but every hour, just in case I missed it? I think not.

Looking at my own behaviour I know that it takes me a while to get to know a writer online and that recommendations from others I admire hold greater weight. Some authors seem to develop a ‘brand’, rather than work to build a relationship with their reader based on mutual interest and that is something that brings out the cynic in me. Are you the product, or is it the book? I am not sure I want to feel manipulated by a brand; perhaps the Coca Cola of the book world.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegSo as my own book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health (Pen & Sword October 2014) came up for publication last month I wanted to ensure I did more than just say ‘look at me, I’ve got a book out so buy it PLEASE’. I hate asking people to buy a £1 raffle ticket for a good cause, so how on earth could I ask people to buy a book that might cost them nearly £20?

I have got to know some lovely writing friends via twitter and Facebook and know that I have been encouraged by their approach to grabbing my interest as a reader. I had recently hosted guest posts by both Vivienne Tuffnell (who had just written Square Peg) and Angela Buckley (author of The Real Sherlock Holmes) on this blog, as part of their own ‘blog tours’ so I thought I would give something similar a go. In doing so, I hoped, I could offer potential readers the opportunity to see the sort of issues Shell Shocked Britain deals with, and highlight the legacy of the Great War for Britain’s mental health and whet their appetite for the book. And hope they bought it, of course.

I have to say to any author considering a blog tour that it is no mean feat. I was lucky to have lovely bloggers agree to host me, but I still had to write the posts, find the images and make sure I got the copy to the bloggers in a timely fashion. I underestimated the amount of work it takes to promote a book in the early months. But I am SO glad I did it and I want to send a big ‘thank you’ to all the lovely people who hosted me. Of course, all the (hopefully) fascinating content I came up with to tempt people to find out more is on other people’s blogs, but not here on my own. So I thought I would link to them all on here and encourage you to go over to the other sitesand read not just my article, but others on each of them. All are writers and historians that I admire and I am proud that my writing now sits alongside theirs.

So mind the doors please, here we go….

Stop 1: Shell Shocked Britain – Suzie Grogan shares the crime that inspired her book on Angela Buckley’s Victorian Supersleuth

Stop 2: Is Britain still “Shell-Shocked”? A question for World Mental Health Day on Vivienne Tuffnell’s Zen & the Art of Tightrope Walking

Stop 3: A Short History of Shell Shock by Suzie Grogan on the Leeds Big Bookend blog

Stop 4: Gender & the Great War – The myth of the ‘superfluous woman’ on Emma Jolly’s genealogic blog

Stop 5: Shell Shocked Civilians -Fire over Folkestone and the bombing of Tontine Street on Rachael Hale’s The History Magpie

Stop 6: Avoiding the trickcyclist and nutpicker: First World War home remedies and miracle cures on Caroline Rance’s The Quack Doctor

Stop 7: The Children of Conflict: How the First World War Shaped the Next Generation on Debra Watkins’s Writer blog

Thanks all! And to everyone who has, or will buy Shell Shocked Britain, a ‘thank you’ too. We need to get the mental health message out there and ensure that if this four years of commemoration of the First World War achieves anything it does at least get recognition of the issues current service personnel face  – remarkably similar as they are to those experienced by their shell shocked forbears 100 years ago.