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.

 

How old newspapers can aid historical research: by Denise Bates

Historicalnews coverToday I welcome to No Wriggling Denise Bates, whose latest book, Historical Research Using British Newspapers is published by Pen and Sword this month. I have often written on this blog of how useful I found the British Newspaper Archive in my research for Shell Shocked Britain and at all my talks I stress how important a resource old newspapers are. Denise has used my experience, and that of other writers, as case studies in her book. In this post she looks at the ways in which research into mental health can be enhanced by reference to the newspapers. Shell Shocked Britain was inspired by a cutting found when I was undertaking some family history research, so imagine what you might find in those fascinating old pages…..

Old newspapers are no longer an archive resource mainly used by seasoned researchers. An internet connection and a log-in enable anyone with an interest in the past to read old newspapers, at a time and place which is convenient to them. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the past and digitised newspapers now offer anyone who is intrigued by topics that fall outside the academic or commercial mainstream a way of pursuing their own interests. Sometimes the subject-matter of historical research has been driven by the academic or the publishing community meaning that some topics have effectively fallen ‘out of history’. Some writers have been too keen to make a point at the expense of accuracy and, for some topics, finding material to learn from has been a practical problem. Newspapers can be very helpful in all of these situations.

Mental health in the nineteenth century is a subject where newspapers contain a rich repository of material for investigation, to supplement existing knowledge about life in the asylum or the hysterias supposedly experienced by females. When I researched Pit Lasses, my book about the women and girls who worked underground in coal mines until the job was banned for them in 1842, I had hoped to discover something about their mental well-being but found scant information in the records of the time. A fortuitous breakthrough came when I traced a newspaper report about an unnamed female who had died at a Lancashire Colliery in 1844. The case was included in Frederick Engels’ political tome, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. Engels was keen to show that women still laboured underground and suppressed the inconvenient fact that the teenager did not work at the colliery but had killed herself by jumping down the shaft.

No reason for Margaret Wignall’s suicide was given in the brief paragraph, but as more newspapers became available on-line I discovered a detailed report of the inquest into her death. The Mines Act of 1842 had cost Margaret her job and other work was hard to find. She had briefly been employed as a children’s nurse but was dismissed because of her rough manner of speaking in favour of a more refined girl. Presumably depressed by her inability to earn her keep, perhaps nagged by her parents on this point, she took her father’s lunch to him at the pit and then killed herself in public view. The truth about her untimely death is much more complex and shocking than Engels’ text suggested.

Margaret’s is just one case amongst many reported in nineteenth century newspapers where an individual may have suffered mental health problems. My breach of promise research found several broken engagements where one of the parties probably had schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or depression, although this was not recognised at the time. Not all individuals turned to the devastating outcome of suicide but it is clear that many struggled to cope without support or understanding from of those around them.

As these brief examples show, newspapers contain a wealth of information on many subjects, but it is not always presented a direct manner. An open-minded researcher who is prepared to commit time to locating and interpreting information drawn from newspaper reports may make discoveries that enhance our understanding of the past, or even challenge existing beliefs about it.

My sincere thanks to Denise for writing this post, and do look out for her book in all good bookshops, or find out more at the Pen and Sword website.

Historical Research Using British Newspapers by Denise Bates is published by Pen and Sword in April 2016. Her previous books, Pit Lasses and Breach of Promise to Marry are also available from Pen and Sword.

Journey into the Unknown- a Homage to a Holocaust Survivor

51jq4GzQ4jL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_As many of my readers will know (because I have, frankly, gone on about it enough) I have spent much of the past three or four years immersed in the trauma that resulted from the horrors of the Great War. My book, Shell Shocked Britain, was published by Pen and Sword nearly 18 months ago now, and I am still working hard to market it, giving talks and keeping in touch with the continued commemoration of the First World War. I am also project co-ordinator of a Heritage Lottery Fund project in my local area, focusing on the children of the Great War. So I have been firmly rooted in the history of the early part of the twentieth century for some time now.

However, over the past few months I have been commissioned to edit the English version of a book, called Journey Into the Unknown: Homage to a Holocaust Survivor first published in German by Ruth Kaufmann.  Ruth follows the life of her father Bertl Kaufmann, a survivor of the persecution which Jews were subjected to during the Nazi rule. It is now available in paperback and on Kindle and I have found it a deeply moving project to be involved with. A second book, following Adele, a young girl who didn’t survive the Holocaust, will be published later this year and I am pleased to say I will be working on that one too. Journey into the Unknown was published to mark the opening of Austria’s Holocaust Museum in Graz, focusing on the Jewish experience of the horrors.

The book is written in the form of a diary, a picture built up by Ruth during many conversations with her father, Bertl Kaufmann, who has only recently passed away. Like many of the men I researched for Shell Shocked Britain, Bertl could not speak of the horrors he witnessed for decades, and for me it reinforced the research I have read into trans-generation trauma and the point I was making in Shell Shocked Britain – that the impact these experiences can have on a family go across and down the generations.It makes supporting the mental health of today’s war veterans and civilian victims of war trauma vital, and if society neglects the issue it will cost many, many lives.

Journey into the Unknown: Homage to a Holocaust Survivor is out now in paperback and on Kindle. It is a short read, but perfect for adults and young adults who want to travel with a teenager into adulthood through one of the most shocking periods of modern history.

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

‘I opened up the window and in flew Enza..: How Spanish ‘flu added to Great War heartache

1007_flu-3090440_166x138In Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I examine a number of different causes of the trauma experienced by British society as a whole during and after the conflict. I also acknowledge that we should not attribute 21st century responses to those who lived 100 years ago. However, there are some that are, surely, timeless and there are moments in history that shake the very foundations of everything we believe in. Without getting too cliché ridden, there is only so much an individual can take, and in Shell Shocked Britain I consider extending this to the nation as a whole.

So take yourself back to September 2001 and the shocking attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. After the horrors of that day, and the aftermath, do you remember how worried everyone was that an anthrax attack was imminent? That the postal service could become the means by which death was spread across the US, and Britain (I was refused some strong antibiotics for  cellulitis on the basis that they must be stockpiled for just such an eventuality)?  The fear of the ‘other’ became overwhelming, leading nations into war and beginning a chain of events we have yet to recover from. Would we, some wondered, ever feel safe again?

Imagine that after 9/11 an epidemic strikes, affecting the world in the winter of 2001; it is a disease so virulent that hundreds of thousands are dead within weeks, including many who survived the horrors in New York. It is the stuff of disaster movies. But when considering the aftermath of the Great War what is often overlooked is a similar, real, event; another equally devastating but natural disaster that was about to scythe down those that had survived the worst years of the fighting. Influenza.

A protein from the virus, recently identified in 2004
A protein from the virus, recently identified in 2004

When the virus was first noted the symptoms were benign, no worse than the common cold. Soldiers in the trenches complained of sore throats, headaches and lack of appetite. Highly infectious in the cramped, insanitary conditions, no-one seemed to suffer the symptoms beyond three or four days and military doctors were relatively unconcerned. Similar outbreaks had occurred in 1916 and 1917, when illness spread amongst gas-weakened troops and may have been caused by contact with wild and domesticated birds. However, the virus quickly mutated and, mistakenly reported as having originated in Spain, ‘Spanish’ influenza became a killer. By the end of 1919, between 50 million and 100 million deaths could be attributed to the virus worldwide.

The pattern of spread in Britain can be traced from May 1918 with the first cases in Glasgow, moving south to London by June. In July, 700 were reported dead from the virus in one week. Schools all over the country closed and church attendances fell drastically as people tried to avoid infection. Over the summer, the number of deaths declined, but by the autumn the disease had returned, this time causing the deaths of 17,000 in London alone. Cinemas, theatres and any public buildings where large numbers might congregate were closed down.

100 years ago, the public were ignorant of the ways in which infection was spread and even as the war drew to a close were inclined to believe the conspiracy theorists who blamed the Germans.

Spanish fluThere was no cure; like the common cold it simply had to run its course. Hospitals became overcrowded and unable to deal with the number patients admitted. In Aldershot those most desperate cases were left under shelter in the open air to ensure there was room on the wards for those more likely to recover. Many families stocked up on the suggested home remedies, such as quinine, and crowd control was necessary at dispensaries. The  population was advised to wear small surgical masks, ensure good hygiene and sleep in well-ventilated rooms, all sensible advice.

Whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain I came across other supposed ‘cures’ that caused practical problems for those resorting to them. In August 1918, Joseph Jackson, a 31-year-old soldier who had fought at Mons and returned home later with shell shock, had been recommended to drink beer for the influenza he had contracted. This resulted in a six-month prison sentence for kicking a policeman when he was arrested for drunkenness.

Contrary to the rather ‘romantic’ scenes depicted in Downton Abbey, when the lovely Lavinia succumbed, watching someone suffer could be shocking, especially if they were one of the 20 per cent of patients who developed septicaemia or pneumonia, for which there were no modern antibiotic treatments. Some developed a lavender tinge to their skin, the sign of ‘heliotrope cyanosis’. Its onset was alarmingly fast and signalled lack of oxygen and imminent death. A fit, young person could be well first thing in the morning and dead by tea-time. Whole families were affected, children orphaned and left in the care of grandparents as mothers and fathers died.

The families watched as the lungs and major organs of loved ones became filled with a thick jelly, which caused suffocation; bleeding from the ears and haemorrhage from the mucous membranes made it a terrible death. A feeling of intense depression came over those infected and, even patients who recovered were left with a lasting feeling of dejection and hopelessness. In the book I detail some of the reports I uncovered of suicides successful and unsuccessful – by those affected.

Communities large and small could be free of the infection one day and prostrate the next. Troop movements and conditions on the Front contributed to the spread, with the autumn outbreak coinciding with the Armistice Day celebrations. The circumstances required to spread infection were maximised as strangers kissed and hugged in the crowded streets. This time wealth and status was no protection and the age group hardest hit were those who were actively engaged in war work: 20 to 30-year-olds. It is still not clearly understood why this otherwise fit age group was most affected. It might have been because they benefited neither from exposure and possible immunity from previous ‘flu outbreaks or from the improved nutrition available to school children through free school meals. Whatever the reason, it increased the pressure on already fragile temperaments and the Hackney Gazette did little to assuage fears, printing an article in January 1919 stating that ‘this adds a new danger to life. One is never safe in this world.’

Famous names were lost to the virus. Sir Hubert Parry, composer and musician; economist Max Weber; William Leefe-Robinson VC, the first man in Britain to shoot down a Zeppelin airship. But Kaiser Wilhelm contracted flu and survived.

By early 1919 the numbers infected by the virus were gradually falling and the worst was over, although reported cases continued well into the summer of that year. Experts still dispute how many died from this strain of influenza across the world, but estimates range between 40 million to 100 million and around 230,000 of the victims were British. Other countries were hit even more cruelly; 4 per cent of India’s population died, and in some parts of the United States bodies were piled high in the streets until mass graves could be dug, as nearly 675,000 people lost their lives and 25 per cent of the population contracted the virus. It was tragedy on a monumental scale.

Surely, when assessing the impact of the trauma of the 1914-18 conflict, one has to imagine how we would respond now to such a nightmare, bearing in mind at the hint of ‘bird’ or ‘swine’ flu we are on major alert. It is remarkable to think that the consequences of an illness with a higher body count than the Black Death, remains a footnote to the Great War.

A Great War poem for August 2014: MCMXIV (1914) by Philip Larkin

largeAs the weeks fly by and publication of Shell Shocked Britain approaches, I have been turning to poetry in an (often vain) attempt to relax and clear my mind of proofs and tweets and the general organisation of the launch.  The poets of the Great War have, of course, been the focus of programmes about the war on television and radio. The work of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al is moving and descriptive of the horror of the trenches. They describe, angrily, their views of the establishment that sent young men to war, encouraging more and more to join up whilst they sat back in England, in apparent comfort. Poems such as Dulce et Decorum est by Owen and The General by Sassoon have framed the ways many people imagine what that war was like and have fed the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ so brilliantly exemplified by Blackadder Goes Forth.

imagesBut  I heard a reading of a very different type of poem this week, by a man born after the end of the First World War  – Philip Larkin. Having been unfit for active service in WWII due to poor eyesight, he was unfamiliar with the direct horrors of war, but he was a man who understood the power of the emotion present in ordinary lives. His expectation of life was low and he was something of a curmudgeon. But in the following poem, written 50 years after the Great War began, he looks back as we might do, 50 years on into a new century. As if inspired by an old photograph he describes those early, August days of the war and the queues of men, seemingly  in holiday mood waiting at the recruitment office as if they were going to a cricket or football match. The title is MCMXIV (1914); even those Roman numerals harking back to days long gone, as the four verses take as from the shops of the town to the big country houses via a countryside that seems remote from the coming carnage:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

The very normality of the scenes depicted brings back all the research I have undertaken for  Shell Shocked. Millions of lives were affected by the war across every class and so few, in those early months, understood the reality of the war they were called to join. Larkin reminds us of those things that touch and fascinate us now – the nostalgia of the individual shops, the tins and packets emblazoned with brands long gone and the Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs world of the stately home. There are those ‘thousands of marriages’ that were celebrated by our grandparents and great grandparents. And there is that sense that the very fields  – ‘Shadowing Domesday lines’  and reflecting the poppy fields of France – were part of a history about to be thrust into the past; an old world.

I think it is a poem we should read over the coming month as the commemorations really begin and we look back, with Larkin, at our forbears  walking almost blindly into a carnage that stripped back the veneer of innocence and threw Britain into a century of total war and total change.

Teaching the First World War – engaging imaginations with historic newspapers

qnscabijelvfu9dudepk_thumb‘Will Dismal Jimmy Look More Cheerful Today?’

So reads the headline above the Daily Sketch title on Monday September 27th 1915.

I have no idea what that means but it certainly draws me straight in! I have been lucky enough to be sent an example of one of the free First World War packs offered by Historic Newspapers,  the UK’s largest private archive of historical newspapers to educational institutions as the centenary commemorations begin in earnest.

The First World War newspaper book, called 1914-1919 As Reported At The Time, aims to engage with young people in a way that makes the history real, rather than an abstract idea which they feel they have no links with. Reports in the media that kids are already being ‘turned off’ by the Great War are surely greatly exaggerated. Many of the projects being run in local areas are incredibly creative and have no problem involving ages from the proverbial 8 to 80+, but schools sometimes experience greater problems. The curriculum doesn’t always allow for similar expressions of the many feelings the First World War can bring out in the young. Curiosity, fear, anger, laughter (yes there is a place for humour – the troops found courage in it) all these things can make the conflict come that little bit closer – safely of course.

So this booklet begins on September 27 1915 at the Battle of Loos with first reports of British and French soldiers “on the road to victory” and finishes with the end of the war on Monday November 11 1918. Much happens in between, with reports on Gallipoli, and on Edith Cavell. But I love the way this offers a peek into the wider social history of the time. The wonderful adverts for Maypole margarine; how Violette starring Edris Coombs was on twice nightly in Drury Lane and what could be found in the Christmas Parcels offered by Selfridges.  Herrings in tomato anyone?

Thomas Walker, of Historic Newspapers, has said:

“The book can be used to discuss the changing nature of conflict, the cooperation between countries, the shift of alliances and the lasting impact of the war on national, ethnic, cultural and religious issues.”

I think he is right, and it is FREE. If anyone asks me to review something on my blog they have to expect me to be honest, and the only complaint I could have about this book is that it leaves me – an adult writer about the war and its aftermath, wanting more. It is just enough for those who just need to be inspired to find out more.

Hard copies of the teaching packs are currently available to schools, universities, libraries and accredited education establishments, and individual PDF files can be ordered if digital format is preferred. Enquiries should be sent to Thomas Walker from Historic Newspapers at: Thomas.Walker@historic-newspapers.co.uk.

 

The Writer’s Blog Tour – coming out of the attic to party….

blogI can be a real party pooper sometimes. I get asked to join in memes and round robin thingies and although I enjoy reading the blogs written by others I like to do it in my own time, and find out something I didn’t know already.  So although I was really pleased to be nominated for a large-scale writer’s blog tour by the inspirational Angela Buckley, (author of the fabulous ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes previously featured on my blog and master of Victorian detection over at victoriansupersleuth.com/) I was also worried about taking it on. Time, ideas etc are all very precious at the moment so I nearly said ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

But then I saw that I would be part of a growing international community of writers, working to introduce our blogs to a wider audience. Christine Findlay, Chair of Bookmark Blair in Perthshire, Scotland invited us to take part (see www.cfindlay.blogspot.com) The Writers’ Blog Tour is a great way to sample the work of new writers. It had already been round some writers I admire, and I was nominated alongside the lovely Rachel Hale over at The History Magpie and although I was tempted to stay in the kitchen with my head in a metaphorical box of cheap Chardonnay I decided to get out and mingle a bit.

So here I am – clutching a plate of nibbles somewhat nervously and clasping a tumbler in a shaky hand. Be nice to me and I promise I am not really a kill joy.

What am I working on?

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegAt the moment I am in that nervous period just before publication of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The legacy of the First World War for Britain’s mental health‘, when proofs are read and indices compiled and the marketing really starts to build. As well as Shell Shocked I am also commissioned by Pen & Sword History to write two more social histories – Death, Disease & Dissection; The life of a surgeon apothecary in the early 19th century and another on the artists of the Great War. Both should be out in 2016/17.

At the same time I dabble in fiction – ghost stories and cosy crime..

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm, a tough one this. As someone who has experienced mental ill-health, I do try to look with a fresh perspective on periods of history that would, if they happened today, cause widespread and lasting trauma. In Shell Shocked, the Great War is seen as an extraordinary and terrible period that left emotional scars on Britain as a whole, as well as causing thousands of individual tragedies. In Death etc I will look at how the horrors of 19th century medicine co-existed alongside a great Romantic movement and great advances in science. In Artists etc I will examine the work of great painters, sculptors, musicians and writers to see how it has affected our memories of the conflict. We are all different, and we respond to events in various ways. I always try to tell a story that encourages us to look back into our histories with compassion and greater understanding.

I suspect many of us would say the same, however.

Why do I write what I do?

See above. Some people’s stories just need to be heard and I am passionate about being their voice. I do such a lot of research that suggests that despite a mass of evidence provided by historical events, society as a whole simply does not learn.

Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space...
Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space…

How does my writing process work?

It frequently doesn’t! I can research forever, in primary and secondary sources, and enjoy it but actually writing? The demon procrastination is my nemesis. Sudden urges to wash up/water the garden/exercise (OK, not the last one…) frequently overwhelm me. I need to be somewhere well away from home and all its distractions. Writing Shell Shocked I dumped myself on in-laws and friends and took myself away to Cumbria (my spiritual home, I like to think) where I can just write and write…

Finally, I want to thank you for stopping here on the tour and introduce you to two other writers who I admire and encourage you to seek out their blogs and websites and learn a little more about their work.

Michelle J Holman

Based in London, Michelle is a researcher and freelance writer specialising in 18th century entertainment. She is the author of the Abraham Adcock blog at www.abrahamadcock.com, a short story, The Guinea Ghost, and a collection of poetry and prose focusing on living with mental illness entitled The Sea of Conscience. She is currently working on her first novel.

Beth Webb

Beth lives near Taunton in Somerset with two disreputable moggies who rule her life. She has published books for young children (Junkyard Dragon) and older children (The Dragons of Kilve and The Fleabag Stories), earning great reviews worldwide. She also teaches budding young writers and you can find out more about how she works on her website www.bethwebb.co.uk

The Sinking of the RMS Tayleur – author Gill Hoffs on how Victorian corsetry contributed to a tragedy…

Sinking of RMS Tayleur - Gill Hoffs - hi res imageI have been really lucky with the books I have been asked to review in recent weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed The Real Sherlock Holmes by Angela Buckley and now can honestly say I have spent three sunny days gripped by “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic‘” by Gill Hoffs. (Pen & Sword, 2014) I can heartily recommend it for the detailed research Gill has done into the Victorian period,  combined with her skills as a true storyteller. It is a tragic tale, beautifully told, with a respect for the victims that doesn’t preclude a thrilling description of a horrific shipwreck.

So I am delighted to host a guest post from Gill on my blog today. As she researched the book, Gill was curious to find out why only three women and three children survived out of over 170 while more than half of the men on board managed to escape the sinking ship. Here she interviews one of the many people who helped her research 

Jennifer Garside
Jennifer Garside

When researching a particular period or person, it can be useful to find someone who’s essentially carried out the work for you in advance and has a passion for the subject. I needed to know about British clothing in the 1850s, and why the fashions of the day contributed to the deaths of at least a hundred women in one shipwreck alone. Luckily Jennifer Garside, a motorbike-riding, corset-wearing, broadsword-fighting businesswoman, runs Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing (specialising in neo-Victorian designs) and agreed to help. Jennifer demonstrated to me using samples, contemporary accounts and illustrations, how heavy and restrictive the women’s outfits would have been on board the Tayleur, and how that influenced their survival when the ship wrecked. As is often the way, each answer led to yet more questions, including some about Jennifer herself.

What came first for you: the interest in sewing, history, or re-enactments? How did you get into re-enactments and corsetry?

I was always crafty as a child, my mother taught me to sew and use a sewing machine, and as far as I can remember I had a fascination with pretty historical dresses. My grandmother had a button tin with pictures of Victorian ladies round the outside; I loved to play with it both for the images on the tin and the amazing buttons inside. Re-enactment came later; it wasn’t until I was at university that I discovered a group and found it was something I could actually get involved in.

I blame my parents for the re-enactments. As a child, I loved to explore castles, and they took me to see a joust when I was about 8, and I decided I wanted to have a go! At University, I found both a re-enactment group, and a HEMA group (Historic European Martial Arts) and started to study swordsmanship. The corsetry was probably born out of my love of the beautiful hourglass Victorian dresses. I have always been small, but when I was about 18-20, I had a very boyish figure not the curves I wanted. I discovered corsetry and as I was a student and couldn’t afford to buy a good corset, thought I would try making them. It took a long time to teach myself as there weren’t the resources there are available now.

How do you source vintage designs?

Fashions of 1854
Fashions of 1854

There are a lot of good resources now for vintage patterning, you can still get hold of original patterns from the 1900s (I have some amazing 40s and 50s patterns that I picked up from ebay and junk shops!), as you get earlier, there are reprints of Victorian and Edwardian patterns from magazines that are reasonably easy to get hold of and lots of books available detailing construction. The earlier you get, the harder it is to find original material to study, but by studying pictures and the material that is available, it is possible to work out how these pieces were probably made. Where possible though, the best way I find to learn is to look at extant garments, most museums have the facility to let you study pieces in their collection if you contact them, and there is so much more you can learn by looking at something in person than by looking at a photo.

What are the hazards of your work?

CAD – Cat assisted design. My ginger mog has an annoying tendency to try to get involved at the most awkward times! Also, most of my work is carried out on a 1930’s Singer sewing machine that will sew through just about anything, including fingers as I have learnt the hard way.

Do you find you notice costuming over story and acting in period dramas?

Yes and no, if the story is good and I can lose myself in it, then I can forgive most things other than the totally glaringly obvious, but I will often find once I have noticed something I can’t concentrate on the plot as the error keeps niggling at me!

What is the one key issue you think researchers need to bear in mind when thinking about clothing in the past?

I think you have to understand somewhat the culture, mindset and conditions people were living in. It is only relatively recently that we have had mass production and global communication, therefore in the past although there would be fashions, there would be a lot more geographical variation in styles and each garment would be individually made. Clothes in any period of history say something about the wearer, be that status, profession or any of a myriad of other things.

How has engaging in broadsword fighting and similar activities improved your understanding of the practical requirements of outfits throughout history?

It’s not just the fighting, by wearing the clothes of a certain period you get a better understanding of how a person could move and how they would stand or sit. This may seem unimportant, but if you want to really understand the past I think this really gives you an insight. A simple example would be the footwork when learning to use the smallsword, the weapon itself looks similar to a modern fencing blade, but looking at the original treatises the steps and lunges tend to be much smaller than in modern fencing, you discover the probable reason why when you try fencing in period footwear with smooth leather soles!

Who are your favourite female fighters?

Jennifer Garside 2This is a difficult one too. All throughout history there are examples of often unnamed women fighting alongside their male counterparts, normally only uncovered as women after death or injury. I could list hundreds of inspirational female fighters, but I’ll limit myself to two from two historical extremes. The earliest known European fencing treatise is Royal Armouries MS.I.33 or the Tower Manuscript, this dates from about 1300 and shows a system of combat with sword and buckler (a small round shield). In the latter part of the manuscript, in place of one of the two male figures we see earlier in the text, we have a female figure referred to as Walpurgis. While there is still debate as to why a female figure is used in the text, I feel that her presence maybe indicates that females fighting wasn’t such an unusual occurrence as we might otherwise believe. Travelling forwards 600 years we have Edith Garrud, trained in Bartitsu (probably one of the first ‘mixed martial arts’), she in turn trained The Bodyguard, a group of about 25 women whose task it was to keep the leaders of the militant Suffragette movement out of the hands of the police. She is immortalised in a lovely 1910 Punch cartoon showing her fighting off a group of policemen.

Thank you for all your help with my research, and for sharing so much information about your enviable life!

And thank you Gill – it is a great book and I hope to be there at one of your entertaining talks before too long!

The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: the Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen and Sword, 2014), is out now – see http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/ for further details. Contact Gill at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk, @GillHoffs or through http://gillhoffs.wordpress.com.
For more information about Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing, visit http://www.rosenkavalier.co.uk/wytephantom/wytephantom4.htm, call 0774 686 4354, or email wyte_phantom@hotmail.com.