Great War guest post: A Granny’s Legacy – From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords

book coverI wrote, before Christmas, of my concerns that post-Armistice Day centenary commemorations, the wonderful stories that are part of the heritage given to us by the Great War, would cease to interest the media. Despite there being much to learn from 1919 onwards, and the ongoing trauma experienced by soldiers and civilians alike, it does seem I might be right. Media stories of projects ongoing are thinning out and the Brexit horrors have overtaken almost every other subject in the news. So I have been determined to continue to run stories and examine themes from the Great War. 

One of the consequences of writing Shell Shocked Britain (published Pen & Sword in 2014) was that I got to know some really interesting people, with fantastic stories to tell. One such is Amiel Price, who published her own book last year, entitled From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords. 1917 Diary and Letters. She had inherited a store of letters and diaries from her grandmother, also called Amiel and she shared them with me before the book came out. I was fascinated by the stories revealed, the love of the two young people heightened by the war and the wonderful cartoons and photos that illustrated it. I was also keen to hear more of life in the army away from the Western Front, in Egypt, a part of the world many don’t realise was affected. I was thrilled when Amiel asked me to write the Foreword, and I am equally thrilled to welcome her to the blog today. 

A few years ago I inherited various letters and photographs belonging to my maternal Grandmother, Amiel Robins.  Many were dated from 1917.  I had seen some of the photographs before, and I knew about the letters but had never read them.

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Amiel Snr as Burlington Bertie

Years ago my Mother had shown me a brown and black album containing photographs of Granny and her friends in fancy dress.  They were a stunning collection of professional black and white photo postcards showing the girls in their various costumed sketches.  She explained that Granny had been in a concert party called ‘The Allies’ that had put on many performances to entertain wounded soldiers in Birmingham.  There were photos of Granny dressed as ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ and as ‘England’ in a union flag costume.  Indeed we still have this flag costume which I have worn myself for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and for the 2012 Olympics.

I also knew that Granny had had a fiancé called Norman Wells who had been killed during the First World War.  We still have his photograph which was mounted in a silvered frame embossed with the emblem of his Herefordshire Regiment.  As I understood it this large framed photograph had always stood on Grandfather’s dressing table in his memory.

In a small attaché case I found more photographs, some of them quite small and depicting a WW1 soldier in the desert.  Elsewhere there were photo albums of pictures of Norman and Amiel together in her garden or the countryside.  There were also two small notebooks, which turned out to be Granny’s diary for 1917 and her copied out version of Norman’s diary for October to December of the same year.

 

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As the commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War were about to begin I realised that now was the time to sit down and read through the letters.  These were all written by Norman to Amiel from December 1916 when they met, right throughout the year to Christmas 1917.  He wrote almost every other day in a beautiful hand that was easy to read.  He described what he was doing in camp, how he felt about Amiel and about his hopes for their future together.  It was the most poignant and fascinating read.  It was so evocative of that era and gave such an insight into Norman’s war.

As Amiel and Norman lived in Handsworth, Birmingham, I had assumed that there was no connection to Wales and where I lived, but no – I was surprised to find that Norman came to camp in Singleton Park in Swansea.  He described the camp and the seaside and walking to Mumbles and Langland Bay, which is where, as it happens, our family came to live fifty years ago.

musclesSo – what to do with this amazing collection of letters, photographs, and even drawings, as well as the diaries and a costume?  Even now I’m not sure, as I would be sorry to see it all disbanded and ending up in different places.  I started by typing up the letters and diaries in order to share them with my cousins so that they would also know the story from their Grandmother’s early years.

But as I typed and looked up things I didn’t understand, I was telling my friends and colleagues little snippets about Amiel and Norman.  They became intrigued and found it all so interesting that they persuaded me that other people would be interested too, and so I began my work in earnest to produce a book, the publication of which would coincide with the period of the WW1 anniversary.

The other reason I wanted to share this story is that it helps to tell some of the story away from the Western Front.  So much coverage, understandably, has been given to the First Word War in France and of the major battles that we have missed or forgotten about the war in Egypt.  Not only that but even less has been told of the ordinary soldier’s life in training camp or in a desert camp.  The hardships, the boredom, the shortages, the dreadful weather.  All topped by the longing, the desperate longing, for letters from home.

Although the story is a very personal one about a young couple’s love for each other, it is set in a time of great upset and upheaval that affected so many people at the time and so many others in the generations to follow.  The story has resonance with us all.

If you would like to buy a copy of From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords the price is £9.99. For further information and to order the book contact Amiel Price on 01792 369121 or email: fronheulogbooks@gmail.com

Thank you so much for sharing your story Amiel.

Black dogs and Lost Generations – Andy Farr, artist.

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Silent Witness by Andy Farr

Towards the end of last year my book, Shell Shocked Britain, prompted one of those serendipitous conversations that link creative projects together and potentially enhance them both. I was contacted by Andy Farr, an artist based in Coventry. His recent work has focused on ‘conflict’, most particularly as a result of war but also including the trauma caused by terrorism,  domestic abuse and the inner conflict that can lead to serious mental ill health.

I went to meet Andy in the glorious surroundings of Gloucester Services (which are actually quite plush). It was good to talk about how the personal stories of men and their families in Shell Shocked Britain might influence art.  He is collecting stories to inspire his latest project –   a body of work that will express the pain exhibited by those narratives of war; from the “shell shock” of the Great War through to the combat stress experienced by service personnel in the 21st century. An exhibition is planned for Nottingham in September and then, all being well, his work will ‘tour’ a number of other venues.

 

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The Response – Andy Far

This new work will extend the fabulous images Andy produced for the Lost Generations project, funded by Arts Council England and the Grimmitt Trust. During Lost Generations, he collaborated with young people across the UK to make the reality of WW1 relevant to today, something I have always been keen to do. My greatest fear at the moment is that the commemorative period will stop, suddenly, in November as we remember the Armistice; the legacy of the war and the importance of continued work to ensure members of the armed forces are supported if the trauma of 21st-century engagements becomes overwhelming, might once more fade away, as it did after 1918.

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100 Summers – Andy Farr

Young people have so many challenges to face today, and competition for their attention becomes ever more difficult, even when the subject is as important as this one. Working collaboratively with students of music, art and drama in this way has clearly worked for Andy. I hope his new project will have a similar impact and continue to ensure that the legacy of war is highlighted. I am currently studying the long-term impact of evacuation on the children of WW2 and it is clear that the horrors of the continuing wars in the Middle East will have a dramatic impact on the future mental health of those involved.

 

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Another day at the office – Andy Far

Mental health is also something important to Andy, who left a well-paid job, requiring an exhausting commute in order to pursue a career as an artist. His series of paintings entitled ‘Black Dog’ vividly depict modern mundanity, the stresses of a deskbound job, and the journies we make to get there. How far away is humanity from that tipping point when our connection to the world around us becomes totally reliant upon interactivity with some sort of screen? How much pressure is it possible to place on themind and brain (surely amounting to much the same thing) before we simply fall off the edge of the precipice, as so many men did in the trenches of the First World War? That endless merry go round? The black dog is waiting for us, all of us. Even those who think themselves immune…

 

CarouselSo do take a look at Andy’s work on his website – www.andyfarr.com – where you can see a moving video detailing more of the work undertaken for the Lost Generations project and find out more about what inspires Andy to choose the subject matter of his work.

Andy is a storyteller in art. His work takes the static memorial and brings it vividly to life and forces us to make the links between the past and the present that are the very best way to ensure future conflicts are avoided. For myself, as a parent, the images of the young people transposed onto the well-known images of the Great War have had as much, if not more, impact than the originals.

My thanks to Andy for allowing me to use these images on my blog. Do go to his website www.andyfarr.com and see them enlarged and further explained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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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.’

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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

The BBC, the Great War & being part of the ‘bandwagon’…?

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From the jacket of Shell Shocked Britain

First of all, thank you to all those who chatted to me, on and off-line following my Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain post. It was really heartening to find out so many are interested in the legacy of the Great War for the mental health of the nation and I have worked hard to do the subject justice; but the next six months are not so much about writing as marketing and I want to approach that properly as well.

However, I am aware of the first rumblings and grumblings about the coverage of the centenary so far. ‘There is SO much on the television’ said one friend ‘that it is hard to see how it can continue’. Another drew attention to the fact, one hundred years ago,  the war had not even started; yet the BBC (and it is almost wholly an issue for the BBC Coverage) is offering television and radio programmes on a daily basis. Radio 4 is awash with adverts not just for its own programming, but for Radio 2 and the television channels too. ‘Every presenter seems to want to jump on the Great War bandwagon…’ they said ‘I am feeling rather ambivalent about the seeming glorification of the war’. This is not really the response one would want for the centenary of one of the great turning points in British history. What we have today, we owe to those who fought in, and lived through, a conflict that sent out those first shoots that grew into ‘modern’ Britain.

I have been gripped by many of the programmes broadcast so far, but I have a lot of sympathy with these concerns, most particularly because it is another six months until Shell Shocked Britain hits the shelves. Although it is hardly possible to comprehend, people may be jaded and less interested in hearing about the First World War by October. And aren’t I doing exactly the same thing as the BBC by publicising the book so far in advance of the launch date? I want to make sure everyone who may be interested in the book knows it is there. But will anyone still be listening?

paxoThe subject matter of Shell Shocked Britain is so different from most of the programmes aired thus far. Jeremy Paxman in Britain’s Great War touched on some of the issues I aim to highlight, but without making some of the links I think are necessary – how the trauma experienced by combatants and civilians, adults and children alike affected the mental health of the nation. How behaviours, responses and attitudes in the post war period resulted in an approach to mental illness that resonates even into the twenty-first century. It is an important subject that I hope will find an audience. I want that audience ready to listen. I want it to be there.

Is anyone out there privy to the workings of the television and radio scheduler’s mind? Has the BBC a formal programme of events across the next four years? Are we to have programmes covering each of the battles? At what point does something become, in a programme maker’s eyes, ‘worthy’ of a documentary? Is the output original, or a re-hash of things we have seen before? Is this deluge of documentaries respecting the history of the period or exploiting it? So many questions.  Can this frenzy of programme making last four years?

Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting some pieces on topics I cover in Shell Shocked. These will include The First Blitz, the outbreak of Spanish influenza, Eugenics, and the fascination with spiritualism that saw a resurgence during and after the conflict. I will also tell you some of the sad stories that have materialised during my long trawls through the newspaper archives – stories that mirror that of my great-uncle Alfred Hardiman, who killed his ex girlfriend and then himself in 1922. They highlight how the strain of dealing with trauma experienced during the war could lead even the gentlest soul to commit shocking acts, often years after the Armistice.

Is it possible to make too much of such an important subject?

So what do you think? Is there too much too soon? Is this early festival of remembrance from the BBC the best way to remember and to honour those that lived through those years?

Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain’: how war trauma casts a shadow across a century

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegI can hardly believe that Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health has been out and available for almost a year. The time has passed so quickly and I am still talking about the book to various groups and being asked to answer questions about shell shock and the lasting trauma of war. The book has 5* reviews and universally praised for its compassionate approach, which is very gratifying. I thought I should just update this post, and of course offer a link to purchase the book – available in hardback or on eReader from Amazon or from the publisher Pen & Sword. Thanks to all who have bought it so far; it is much appreciated and I would love to know what you think.

I know that some readers of my blog (and thanks for that!) already know that throughout 2013 I was writing a book called Shell Shocked Britain commissioned by Pen & Sword History. We are now in the final edit stage, with proof-reading to come before it is finally published in October of this year, marking both the Centenary of the start of the First World War but also the month in which World Mental Health Day falls.

The publisher has given a sub-title to the book –  ‘The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health‘. I cannot argue, as it is exactly what the book is about.

I was thrilled when I was commissioned to write Shell Shocked; not simply because I got my first ever advance and felt truly ‘professional’ as a writer, but because I would have the opportunity to take the Great War and offer up an alternative view of the bloodshed and horror. There have been, and will be, many television programmes, books and academic papers released this year and rightly so, but my book examines the wider, emotional implications of the war, not just for the shell shocked troops but for the civilian population and for the nation as a whole in the inter-war period and takes a fresh look at why we may engage emotionally with WW1 over and above other conflicts. Jeremy Paxman addressed some of the same issues in his recent four-part documentary Britain’s Great War, but in a superficial, and dare I say it of the great man, rather bombastic way. Those he interviewed  must have been shocked at questions such as that asked of a relative of a conscientious objector – ‘If I suggested he was just awkward…?’ I hope I have been a little more sensitive, whilst remaining objective and accepting of realities.

Myths about the war abound and by the end of this first year of commemorative events there is a danger that arguments by politicians and media opinion will sully what should be a sombre time of reflection.  Dan Snow published a wonderful list called ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked that highlights how far we have strayed from what may be called ‘a truth’ about that war. It is important we recognise what was universal about WW1 as well as what was unique and for me, having just ‘completed’ Shell Shocked Britain it was a relief to see him write

By setting it apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general. We are also in danger of belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day.

Having read widely and having spoken to those who have had a role in the modern-day Armed Forces as well as the Army of the 1940s and 1950s, it seems to me that the response to the horrors of armed combat are as difficult to comprehend today as they were for those first soldiers faced with mechanised and trench warfare. As civilians we simply cannot understand the bonds between men and women in war zones; we can’t imagine what it is like to see one’s friends blown to pieces before our eyes, or sit to eat our meals with the numbers around the table dwindling as injuries and fatalities increase. We see the names but we don’t know the people, or understand what took them to that front line in the first place.

netley-shell-shock-1917Combat stress and PTSD  are the descendants  of  shell shock. Many (though not all), of the responses to the trauma of battle are the same now as they were then – anxiety and depression, anger expressed as aggressive and impulsively dangerous behaviour, alcohol and other substance misuse and nightmares and flashbacks. Currently the national charity Combat Stress is helping 5,000 veterans deal with their symptoms. By the end of the Great War some 80,000 men had been diagnosed with shell shock but there were thousands more affected, to some extent by the trauma of war.

In addition, they came home to a nation where almost everyone knew a bereaved family, even if they had been lucky to welcome their own sons home. Many felt guilty; many were themselves scarred by anxiety as they waited for the dreaded telegram, ran for cover as Zeppelins or Gotha aircraft flew over their homes bringing death behind the Front Line, or welcomed young men home only to find them taken from them by Spanish Influenza, or later manifestations of shell shock that drove them to suicide. Relationships had changed in a fundamental way and many found it hard to adapt. It can be argued (as well as challenged of course) that there was a sense of collective trauma, as the prelapsarian world of the Edwardian era was shattered

But as Dan Snow rightly points out, many young men actually found the war offered them a way out of grinding poverty and unemployment and offered them opportunities to enjoy freedoms denied to them at home. Now, we still find young men and women signing up to find a career, to gain respect and take themselves away from a damaging home situation. These young people live 100 years apart but (despite the caveat that we cannot attach 21st century mores to 20th century lives), they are not so different.

And this is what I wanted to express something of in Shell Shocked Britain; that we are a world apart now, as the last veterans pass on and the numbers who lived through that time dwindle, but we are in many ways the same people. We talk of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and the stoical way many veterans dealt with their experiences, but for many this was not simply the British way. There were simply no words to express the experience to a world that seemed desperate to get on with living.  And it is still that way today for veteran and civilian alike – the trauma has no words and if unaffected it is hard to comprehend.

However, failing to deal with the issues the war raised stored up health problems that reverberate even today. Work has been undertaken by psychologists that shows how far the memory of war can cause mental health issues not only in first generation, but second and third generations of a family. A grandchild may remember an angry grandparent, perhaps reliant on alcohol, aggressive and unkind. Or there were men in the family, like my great uncle Alfred Hardiman, whose acts changed the lives of sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces. Some of them are alive today. Ask them.

If all the work over the next four years of commemoration is to mean anything, we must try to understand, and I hope Shell Shocked Britain may help, just a little bit.

On receiving some wonderful old news……

zeppelinDM290107_228x352As 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. Continue reading “On receiving some wonderful old news……”