My book, Shell Shocked Britain, was published by Pen and Sword Books four years ago, but it was always about the legacy of the Great War, rather than a history of the war itself. I have been talking to groups recently, and to journalists, about how we continue to highlight how, for many, the war did not end in 1918. For thousands, it continued until their life was over. It affected their families and friends, their children and their grandchildren and is, I believe, one of the reasons why the First World War retains its emotional hold on us now. We are all, still, children of the Great War.
The trauma experienced by individuals and the country as a whole left a deep wound that has not yet healed, as in the 21st century we are reminded by the horrors of war in Syria, for example, and still struggle to ensure those affected, including those leaving the armed forces, have the support they need to leave conflict behind and live without fear, guilt and continuing psychological damage.
Despite the misgivings I have about marking this day as the end of the war, it is still a momentous occasion. It offers a focus and the proper recognition of the lives lost, and damaged, by all wars over the past century and gives us the opportunity to think about how our own lives have been affected. Parents, Grandparents, Great Grandparents and on through the generations – family histories have been shaped by conflicts.
For many, poetry is a way into the horrors of the war. We cannot possibly imagine what it was like to be in a trench, on the frontline, being bombarded by shellfire or knowing snipers were ready to shoot you dead the moment your head was raised above the parapet. Neither do we have any real idea of the terrible strain of the silences, the endless waiting for action, or for death. I have written about Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ on here before, both powerfully evoking the senselessness of war. But today I want to share another poem, this time by Christopher Grogan, who writes in the 21st century of 21st-century concerns – both personal and global. In Scene After the Battle, the personal can be interpreted as global – we are in a time of chaos, of uncertainty and of a sense that humanity must be saved, or perish.
Scene after the Battle
The cavalry never came. For days that felt like months
I lay in the sodden mud of the field, scanning through bloodied eyes
the blue-grey horizon, longing to see, rising up from the ridge of the hills,
the creeping silhouettes of men and horses against the sallow canvas of winter dusk,
carrying hopes of a game-changing charge that would scatter the enemy, scythe him down.
But over the field now, only the wind blows softly, collecting for trophies the final sighs of the slain.
On this memorable 11th November, we must ensure that we do not turn our backs on those still waiting for a game-changing charge, for something to scatter the demons.
100 years on it feels as if the world is once more on the brink. We must work to ensure that humanity can once more step back from division and hostility. We must be our own cavalry.
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.
This new work will extend the fabulous images Andy produced for theLost 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.
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.
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…
So 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.
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.
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.
For my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I read Testament of Youth, and Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, both of which I found deeply affecting. As we approach the commemoration of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you my own thoughts on a classic work of the Great War, and those of Pamela Davenport, who reviews Testament and expresses the value of it as a work supporting her research into the changing role of women during and after the war.
First of all, I must say that if you want to find out more about the background to Brittain’s work, you cannot do better than read the work of Mark Bostridge, who has written widely and well on the subject and who has provided commentary on her relationships, letters and life that, read alongside Testament of Youth, offer the context within which it makes sense.
Vera Brittain intrigued me long before I read the book as research. As a teenager, I watched the 1970s television adaptation, starring Cheryl Campbell as Vera, along with my parents. Both were born in the 1920s, to working class families who had endured that four years of war and suffered as a consequence. My grandfather was gassed, seriously physically injured and suffered from undiagnosed ‘shell shock’ that remained with him for the rest of his life, triggering nightmares and terror at the approach of thunderstorms. His story was one of those that inspired my own book, but it was a world away from the sheltered life Vera experienced as a child of a middle-class family, blessed with opportunities for a university education denied most women of her time. However, Cheryl Campbell’s exquisite performance drew us all in, and despite the more recent film, it is Ms Campbell rather than Alicia Vikander who is Vera for me.
Pamela goes into more detail about the story itself, below, but I wanted to mention Testament of Youth more as an evocation of a time, than as a reading experience. The descriptions of a world lost forever in the mud of the trenches are terrific, and Vera makes a statement that is one of the foundations stones of Shell Shocked Britain – that the civilian population were traumatised too, and that the impact filtered down through the generations, affecting us even now:
‘I underestimated the effect upon the civilian population (and on parents) of year upon year of diminishing hope, diminishing food, diminishing heat, of waiting and waiting for news which was nearly always bad when it came.’
The waiting at home, though more comfortable in many senses, chimes in a melancholy way with the traumatising silences between the barrages of shells in the trenches that affected so many men. Those anxious waits, at home and abroad.
Unable to write the novel she planned, Vera turned to autobiography instead and gave us a classic work that ranks alongside the best prose of the war, because, I think, she was a poet too. I refer to her poem The Superfluous Woman in my book, not because I think it is searing in its brutality like Owen, for example, but because it spoke for many middle class women (and this was the group disproportionately affected) who expected to marry those thousands of junior officers who were, in relative terms, more likely to be killed, as her lover and brother were, than the non-commissioned men serving under them.
The Superfluous Woman
Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years,
Whose echoes long have died,
And kind moss grown
Over the sharp and blood-bespattered stones
Which cut our feet upon the ancient ways.
But who will look for my coming?
Long busy days where many meet and part;
Remembered hours of hope;
And city streets
Grown dark and hot with eager multitudes
Hurrying homeward whither respite waits.
But who will seek me at nightfall?
Light fading where the chimneys cut the sky;
Footsteps that pass,
Nor tarry at my door.
And far away,
Behind the row of crosses, shadows black
Stretch out long arms before the smouldering sun.
But who will give me my children?
Vera Brittain expected to remain a spinster after her lover, Roland Leighton, was killed in action, by a sniper. But ten years later she did remarry, and her daughter, Baroness (Shirley) Williams, has always written movingly that although her father loved her mother deeply, he always, as Pamela quotes, saw himself in competition with the ghost of Leighton. The poem above, seems to indicate that he was not wrong.
Testament of Youth is a wonderful autobiography, and a must read for researchers of the period. Desperately sad, it remains the bench mark for description of the death of the golden age that the Edwardian era so frequently represents in our imaginations. At a time, in the 21st century, when the world feels a dangerous place once more Brittain’s words should remind us that conflicts around the globe affect us all in a myriad different ways, never for the better. I think it should remind us that the legacy of Syria, for example, will continue long after the guns are silenced and that we need to support those directly affected with compassion. During discussions about refugees, and about Brexit, with my 87 year old mother I found that far from fitting the demographic profile suggesting a split between older voters (seeking a return to who knows what?) and young she pointed out the similarities between the migrant crisis and her experience of being evacuated. And for her there was only danger in leaving Europe. The financial position aside, she felt we had more in common with our European neighbours, and more to lose by damaging the Union.
A fascinating book about coming of age during a time when the world is in turmoil, a book which resonates with emotions. – review by Pamela Davenport
The First World War can be seen as a watershed in society, marking the great division between the 20th century and the pre-war world of Victorian and Edwardian society. The traditional view of women as defined by their relationship to their men, wife, mother, daughter or sister, had difficulty withstanding the effects of war. Mobilisation left many women for the first time in an independent position and many took advantage of their “freedom” by joining the war effort. There are many letters diaries and memories that provide some insight into life during 1914-1918 turbulent years, but for me it is one of the first accounts of the Great War written from a woman’s point of view, which has been the most influential. Vera Brittain got the idea to write Testament of Youth, in 1916. Writing to her brother Edward that, “if the War spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book, the story of us four…” the book clearly shows a young woman coming of age during a time when the world was in total turmoil.
Born in 1893 in Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire into a middle class family, Vera was expected to conform to society’s expectations of women’s role in society. This was during a time when middle class women were seen as a family’s possession, to prepare for marriage, to raise children and run a household. Not much had changed since medieval times! It was not considered suitable that a woman from Vera’s background would be in paid employment or god forbid, leave home to study at a University! Home life was oppressive for Vera and her independent spirit was apparent, “The disadvantages of being a woman have eaten like iron into my soul”. Vera was quickly realising that being a woman was a barrier to her being recognised as an individual and independent person with the right to have further education and a career. She was deeply envious of her younger brother Edward, who could leave home without getting married.
But times were changing and in 1913, after a series of lucky chances, Vera was accepted to study at Somerville College Oxford. Initially her father had rejected the idea, but so determined was Vera to study that he finally relented and gave her permission to leave home. By this time Vera had met and fallen in love with Roland Leighton, Edward’s school friend. All three of them were going to Oxford, and the future looked bright. But the dark clouds of war and destruction were gathering. On August 4th 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. It was a decision that is seen as the start of World War One, and Vera would be on the move again. At the end of her first year at Somerville, she decided that her duty lay in serving her country and like Edward and Roland , she left Oxford going bravely into battle. As she said later, she was “carried away by the wartime emotion and deceived by the shinning figure of patriotism”. Vera became a nursing auxiliary and spent the remainder of the war years nursing in London, Malta and France.
Testament of Youth became a main resource when I was writing about Women’s roles changing due to WW1. Vera’s memoir highlights the cataclysmic effect of war, not only for Vera but for men and women from her generation. This testimony of a VAD serving with the British army overseas, is an eloquent and moving expression of the suffering and bereavement inflicted by war. But Vera still observed that life was different for women, “The war was a phase of life which women’s experience did differ vastly from men’s and I make a puerile claim to equality of suffering and service when I maintain that any picture of the war years is incomplete which omits those aspects that mainly concern women…The women is still silent who by presenting the war in its true perspective in her own life, will illuminate its meaning afresh for its own generation“.
On reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth the reader is gradually drawn into Vera’s world of destruction and suffering. The narrative plays on emotions, the disbelief as one by one, those closest to Vera are lost in battle, her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward and their friends Geoffrey and Victor. It is a book that portrays the world through Vera’s eyes as she stands at the heart of the upheaval of pre and post-WW 1. Vera was a writer of great descriptive powers, both of place and emotions, the cold and damp, the sickening horrors of Boulogne, the field hospital at Etaples. Her writing resonates with emotions and thoughts of the “shattered, dying boys”, she nurses, her inability to readjust to the brightly lit alien post war world.
In 1919 Vera returned to Somerville, where she felt other students didn’t appreciate the war effort, to study Modern History in an attempt to understand the origins of the conflict which had claimed the lives of Edward, Roland and two close friends. When she visits Edward’s grave on the Asiago Plateau there is a sense of overwhelming shared grief. It was at Somerville that Vera suffered from a “nervous breakdown”, which is now recognised as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
By the time the book was published, 15 years after the end of the war, Vera had rejected anything that identified war with “grey crosses and supreme sacrifices and red poppies blowing against a serene blue sky”. The book is Vera’s passionate plea for peace, she clearly throws light onto the agony of war to the individual and “its destructiveness to the human race”. Testament of Youth conveys the very essence of Vera, a feminist, writer, pacifist, and the voice of the lost generation of World War 1.
Vera was a fascinating woman who achieved so much in her life, she published over 29 books and many articles. She worked tirelessly for the League of Nations and working for peace during the Second World War as a member of the Peace Pledge Union. Her work showed that she was a woman who acted on her principles as well as talking about them.
Although there is hope at the end of the book she is able to escape the pain and devastation of the past as the reader is introduced to her husband to be George “G”, the “ghosts” never left Vera, as G commented, “The hardest rival you can have is a “ghost” because your inclination is to idealise someone who died long ago”. Vera died on March 29th 1970 and was cremated, according to her wishes her ashes were scattered over her brother’s grave in Italy’s Asiago Plateau.
Testament of Youth is a beautifully written and thought provoking book, about the consequences of war, love, duty, responsibility and the power of the written word. It is a book that has stood the test of time. Tragically the message still resonates in the world today.
“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” Flannery O’Connor
Six years ago today I started this blog!! At the time I wondered if I would keep it going more than a week; but here I am older, wrinklier and wider, if not wiser more than 300 posts later.
I chose No Wriggling Out of Writing as the title because, until that moment, wriggling out of doing what I love most had become a habit, and as the blogging boom took off I was encouraged to give it a try. I am not surprised, looking back, that within six months of putting finger to keyboard I had decided to have regular counselling sessions, and the quote from Flannery O’Connor, above, is a feeling I can identify with. Writing on here has helped me to identify those issues that are really important to me, and those that support me when I am struggling to come to terms with my health anxieties, a slow down in book sales, or world events that threaten to overwhelm me. I am more confident in what I hold dear and what I genuinely feel.
So a sincere ‘thank you’ to all those who have read my blog , regularly or just by chance. Looking back, my blogging has changed a lot over the past six years. I started off as part of the ‘mummy’ or ‘parent’ blogging community, becoming less keen as it seemed to morph into something that focused more on freebies and PR than on genuinely held beliefs.
I also realised that to be true to myself I would have to have a blog that went against those ‘blogging bibles’ that suggest you need to find a niche and stick to it; write for an audience and ensure you mop up every possibility to ‘monetise’ your blog. Marina Sofia on the lovely finding time to writeblog, recently wrote a piece I could really identify with called Professional Blogging vs. Personal Connections , and for me it has been those personal connections I have made – with other writers and readers – that have been most valuable. My blog is random; posts about my favourite poet John Keats sit alongside those written on the subject of my book,Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health (a book that would never have been written if not for this blog). Book reviews share space with my love of Cumbria or the occasional rant. I love to have guest posts on my blog, and appreciate the opportunities blogging has given me to write for others. Blog statistics vary wildly from day to day and, still, the post that has had most views (more than 30,000) is the quick one I wrote in 2012 mourning the death of David Barby, the Bargain Hunt expert. All that effort to be literary…..
When I mentioned my bloggaversary to friends on twitter, and wondered how best to mark it, I had lots of suggestions – many involving cake or alcohol – and one I certainly took up was to look back at my early posts to see how I had progressed over the years. Things have certainly changed, and I found that those I like best, and those still read most regularly, are ones in which I focus on a particular poet, or poem. When I write those I am often working through my own thoughts or concerns, but I find I connect with a global audience of other poetry lovers. Lots of people seem to recognise the ways in which a poem can take the real essence of a feeling and describe it in a way that can get to the ‘heart of the matter’, express your deepest thoughts, help you feel less lonely or support you through tough times. It is in poetry that I think Flannery O’Connor’s words resonate for me, alongside the Robert Frost quote, above. Those ‘Oh yes, that’s it!’ moments that can also be felt when listening to the lyrics of a favourite song, or hearing a few bars of a familiar piece of music. I have changed through my love of poetry, and my ever wider reading of it; changed as a writer and as a person. The knowledge that others feel as you do is never as well expressed as it is in poetry and it has taught me so much.
So, on a day when I am reviewing what I have achieved in my six years of blogging – things I would never have done had I not written that first, tentative post – I thought I should end with a poem on the subject of loving poetry by the fabulous Billy Collins. If nothing else, I hope this blog has shared my enthusiasm for verse and encouraged you to give it the opportunity to work its magic on you. If you are someone who still can’t connect with poetry, take Collins’s advice and drop a mouse into a poem – as with my blogging experience, you never know what he or she will be when he has found his way out….
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.
Whilst 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.
Of 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.
As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, it becomes more important than ever to recognise the sacrifices that were being made by the troops fighting at the Front. There were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain, it became clear that post war estimates of approximately 60, 000 shell shock victims in that offensive alone, is still a significant underestimate. Many survived the battle only to return home undiagnosed, and mentally shattered. I am always interested in hearing stories from those who know something of the war-time experience of the men and women in their family, and here is a particularly interesting piece by No wriggling favourite Pamela Davenport, who has sought to understand her ancestor’s experience the better by studying art works of the period.
To his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Albert Edward Davenport was a distant and cold person, preferring to spend the time after work in his local public house rather than at home. Little is known about Albert, except that he had joined the army in 1908, but never completed his 7 years’ service. Instead he was “bought out” of the army by his mother Emma two years later and returned to his family’s terraced home in Bury Lancashire. Four years later the world was turned upside down and Albert would be on the move again.
By August 1914 it had become inevitable that Britain would join forces with the Allies against a German Army that was determined to dominate Europe. When the war commenced, Britain was the only major European power not to have a mass conscripted army. In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men were encouraged to volunteer for service in Lord Kitchener’s new armies. With nationalistic feeling strong, many British soldiers departed for training with a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems tucked into their kitbags. Military service and death was seen as both heroic and noble.
If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England’s, breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Meanwhile in Bury, Lancashire, Albert now aged 28, was a painter and decorator and a father of 4 children. He enlisted in October 1914, as a volunteer in the 2nd 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Whether he was attracted by Kitchener’s recruitment strategies, the valiant words of Rupert Brooke, or the fact that soldiers serving overseas would be able to claim additional money for his wife and dependants, it is difficult to know. By 6th October 1914 he packed up all his troubles in his ‘old kit bag and smiled, smiled, smiled’, as he headed off into the unknown.
Albert, like other new recruits, would have had three months basic training, which was intended to build up physical fitness and confidence, instilling discipline and obedience, as well as teaching basic military skills. This image of the unknown Drummer and Bugler from the 2nd 5th battalion, provides a brief glimpse into the lives of young soldiers who were unprepared for the horrors to be faced on The Western Front. By May 1915 Private Albert Edward Davenport 200845, was on the way to France and possibly the greatest and most terrifying adventure of his life.
2016 marks the centenary of The Battle of The Somme, which was fought between 1st July and 1st November 1916 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone Britain suffered more than 20,000 fatalities and over 57,000 casualties. It is difficult to imagine how the heroic sentiments, which had been displayed in 1914, could rest easily with the terrible devastation experienced on the Western Front. Although news would have reached Albert’s family about events in France, little is known of his life on the Western Front, as no letters or photographs survive. But Albert did survive this battle.
The overwhelming loss of life which was experienced in the Battle of the Somme was partly as a result of the German army proving to be more experienced in the tactics of defence against Allied offensives. This proved to be costly to the British and Allies on the Western Front and added significantly to the length of the campaign.
As they retreated in November 1916, the Germans left desolation in their wake. Not a shelter that might serve as a billet, not a road or a bridge, not a blade of grass or a wisp of hay that would feed horses; this was truly vandalism on a gargantuan scale. It is difficult to imagine how Albert coped with the havoc and destruction of both his battalion and the landscape.
To gain some insight into Albert’s experiences between 1915 – 1917, I have chosen the art of two of the most distinguished artists of this remarkable era of social and political change. In contrast to Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, as years of devastating losses and with no clear resolution to endless fighting, there was a general change in mood from idealism to realism. Many war artists offered a harsh realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. A current exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester highlights some of the graphic images produced by C.R.W Nevinson and Paul Nash. The paintings convey the pathos at the plight and experience of the ordinary soldiers who became nameless heroes. Their “Visons of the Front 1916-1918” do not glorify war and were intended to shock public reaction to the losses in battle. These shocking images still resonate as much today as they did 100 years ago.
Both Nash and Nevinson emerged from a remarkable group of artists from the Slade School of Art and like many other artists, writers and poets ended up on the Western Front. Both saw themselves as messengers of the terrifying realism on the Western front. It must have been a sense of cruel irony that the destruction and depravity of the battle field fed the imagination of these incredible artists.
“I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like. They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter. If I can, I will show them…”
In Nevison’s painting Paths of Glory (above) the starkness and irony is apparent. The viewer is presented with the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. It is difficult to identify or identify with these unnamed heroes, as their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth. A death in a waste land, a dreadful sense of a loss of identity and a waste of young lives. It is little wonder the official censor of paintings and drawings, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee censored this painting, what type of message would the sight of rotting and bloated British soldiers convey to the British public? But these were the type of images which Albert would be faced with.
Nash’s experience as an officer on the Western Front and an official war artist completely transformed the way in which he painted. His early work was romantic and light hearted. By 1917, as he travelled towards Belgium, he began to note changes in the landscape. In one of his most famous paintings, The Menin Road(above) we are drawn into a completely ruined landscape with an apocalyptic sky, a wasteland of mud and standing water. This is really a strange disturbing and alienating place. The scene shows a place of chaos, irrevocable change and wreckage. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive physically, emotionally and psychologically from this experience. It is estimated that over 750,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed in the trenches surrounding Ypres, but Albert wasn’t one of them.
Albert was to see action at Hallencourt, the 4th phase of The Somme and the first phase of the third battle of Ypres, but this was not an enviable European tour. Having survived the Battle of the Somme Albert was promoted to corporal in March 1917, but six months later he received an honourable discharge under the category “No longer physically fit”, and awarded the Silver War Badge.
Although awarded 3 medals, the Star Medal, the Victory Medal, the British Medal, Albert, a weary but resolute British Tommy, did not return to a “Land for Heroes”. Instead Albert returned to a country which had lost a generation. Wilfred Owen’s haunting elegy Anthem for Doomed Youth is a judgement on the experience of war, the impact on the “sad shires” and those who were left to mourn.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Albert returned to his family a changed man, dying aged 71 years in 1953. He never mentioned his experiences in France and Belgium, post-traumatic stress syndrome was a condition which was not recognised in 1918. But Albert would ruefully reflect and contemplate on “each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds” and the many young men who became doomed youths.
Sadly his war records and his medals are missing, but it is thanks to the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury that I have been able to provide some insight into Albert’s army life.
I appreciate I am a bit late with my new year greeting here on No wriggling out of writing. Having lost my blogging mojo a few months ago I have found new ideas for posts hard to come by, especially as I earn a crumb writing for other blogs too ( most notably The Terrace counselling and complementary therapy clinic blog ‘let’s talk!‘) which, though interesting, can take up valuable blogging energy. However, I wanted to get 2016 off to a good start and felt it important to thank those who have stuck with me in more barren writing times, and those who have bought, read and otherwise supported my book Shell Shocked Britain:The First World war’s legacy for Britain’s mental health. It makes a lot of difference to know people still find something to enjoy when I do actually make the effort. I wish you the very best of times this year, and onwards.
It isn’t easy to believe, when news reports detail a myriad of horrors in the world, that there is any chance of some sort of global ‘spirit’ that binds humanity together. But to remain sane I know I have to inhabit a community that still cries out for peace, equality and goodwill towards our fellow beings, and this period over Christmas helps a great deal. Celebrating with family and friends in Somerset and Suffolk reminded me of what is, ultimately, important for the maintenance of my own (and surely many other people’s ) emotional well being – spending time with people we love, remembering our shared pasts, looking to the future and enjoying the ‘moment’. It might sound a little twee to some, but I can’t think of a funky way to put it so bear with me.
Over the Christmas holiday we watched ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure‘ – again. It was, and still is, a family favourite; our children loved it and can still quote it at length. It isn’t a great movie – made at the beginning of Keanu Reeves’s career when his slightly vacant acting style actually supported his role as a dipsy late teenage boy heading backwards in a time machine to collect historical characters to pass a History report – but it is fun, and has bequeathed to us a message that I offer as my hope for 2016……
It isn’t profound, but it is true. Yes we can resolve to eat more healthily, take more exercise and write more and better in the coming months, but we can make those resolutions any time of year, if we are honest. But the sooner we can work to show each other affection and respect, the better and then we can truly let the good times roll…..
Followers of my blog might know that this has been a strange old year for me. It has flown past in a whirl of various worries, some real, some imagined. I have been promoting Shell Shocked Britain around the country and have been negotiating the next book with the publishers, whilst at the same time worrying about whether the writing bug has abandoned me to chew the heart out of some other poor soul.
But I love Christmas, and genuinely want to send everyone reading this best wishes for a fabulous festive season and a happy and healthy new year. It is not an easy time of year for many – especially those who are alone, or without enough of anything to make the end of the year (with all its consumer-driven hyped up happiness) seem a little more bearable.
Reports suggest we are largely a secular society now, but many of us still cling to cosy Anglicanism at Christmas time – the traditional story of Mary and Joseph, the stable, the shepherds and the three wise men – and listen to carols when they nudge their way into our consciousness above the strains of Slade, Wizzard or Wham. Any faith or none, Christmas is always played out as a time of peace and goodwill to all; a moment for friends and family to get together and a short period in which to take stock and reflect on the year just passed, giving thanks for the good things, and express hope for better times to come. It is a time when each and every one of us (even those who say Bah! Humbug!) really wants to love and be loved.
As always I try to find a poem that expresses something of how I feel each Christmas. Having just spent a year promoting a book that highlights the lasting effects of war trauma on both soldiers and civilians, and when we are facing a refugee crisis and violence that few seem to know how to address, Thomas Hardy comes to mind.
A Christmas ghost-story by Thomas Hardy
South of the Line, inland from far Durban, A mouldering soldier lies–your countryman. Awry and doubled up are his gray bones, And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans Nightly to clear Canopus: “I would know By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified, Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears In tacking ‘Anno Domini’ to the years? Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied, But tarries yet the Cause for which He died
In this poem, the ghost of a bemused soldier, twisted in pain, asks us who decided that peace should once again be broken? He cannot understand how we can worship Christ who died to bring us peace, whilst allowing soldiers (this one anonymous man standing for all soldiers) to go into battle once more. All that was supposed to be achieved by the crucified Jesus has been ‘set aside’. He stares at the starry sky, on far away shores, emphasising the distance between himself and those he has left, who mourn him. Why have those in government made laws to send him to his death?
This poem is most definitely anti-war. It was written at the time of the second Boer War at the end of the 19th century but is relevant to all wars in all time. We are still asking the same questions. This year we feel even further away from peace on earth. The crisis in the Middle East has reverberated into the heart of Europe to the point where we cannot afford to ignore the thousands of refugees desperately seeking safety within our borders. We are at war again, and once again troops of many nations are placing themselves in the way of danger. What is significant about Hardy’s poem is that this soldier is any soldier of any nationality. He is ‘your countryman’. Whoever you are.
Borders have been much in the news in 2015. As we end the year there are still thousands trying to cross them to safety and many employed to stop them doing just that. Here in the UK we have much to be thankful for, but as Hardy asks, why do we put ‘AD ‘ after our years, when actions of governments are at odds with the message of the season? The message of peace.
The meaning of this ‘Christmas ghost-story’ still echoes through the decades…….
Whilst writing Shell Shocked Britain I was lucky enough to talk to eminent psychiatrist Dr Peter Heinl, a man who has long been determined to raise awareness of, and work with, those suffering from the lasting effects of war trauma. He was an inspiration to me as I worked hard to make my argument about the lasting impact of the First World War, and was very helpful and supportive, reading the manuscript and commenting for the cover of my book.
“I…hope that Splintered Innocence will raise the awareness of the terrible price wars exact from human beings and that it is worth fighting for peace……the topic of the long-term psychological effects of war…[on] children in particular is a field in great and urgent, if not desperate, need of receiving the attention it deserves”
In the first edition he refers to his work with survivors of the atrocities of the Second World War, but relates his findings to previous, and now subsequent, conflicts. Even before the most recent refugee crisis, he had highlighted in the book, and to me when we spoke, his concern that the legacy of the terrible civil war in Syria and the upheaval across the Middle East and Africa would be lasting psychological damage that will manifest itself over decades to come. Having seen the photos and films emerging from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Europe as desperate people flee unimaginable horrors, it would be, surely, impossible to disagree.
The fear on the faces of children pulled and pushed from adult to adult as they struggle to board trains to the West, the loss of life in shabby little boats as the last of a family’s life savings is taken by people traffickers who abandon them to the whims of sea, weather and coastguard , the struggles when safety is reached, but in a place with no access to work, education or even housing and food – all these are, to Dr Heinl, indicators of the mental health crisis that could follow. Having written, in Shell Shocked Britain and subsequent articles, of the ways in which trauma can manifest itself years later, and across and down generations, I consider there to be years of evidence to support his assertion that people suffer, physically and psychologically, for the rest of their lives. Even if they themselves don’t realise it.
And that is the message one gets from this wonderful book, aimed primarily at other therapists but accessible to anyone with an interest in the way the human mind takes in and processes everything it experiences. The adults fleeing conflict show pain writ large on their faces and in their desperate and sometimes angry reactions to some new injustice. They have expected too much of a world which really has no idea how to provide a solution. The children are afraid, confused, terrified of losing those they depend on, clinging to a mother’s skirts or carried in a father’s arms, but they have no voice. The work Peter Heinl has done, my findings in Shell Shocked Britain and the work currently being done with service personnel traumatised by their work in Afghanistan, Iraq and other global missions, highlight the fact that this trauma can lead to a life blighted by unemployment, substance misuse, homelessness and domestic violence. Relationships are harder to maintain when trust and attachment are issues and marital breakdown and periods of depression and anxiety are more common, as is suicide. Yet the root causes of these issues aren’t always obvious and are often missed; it takes a skilled practitioner to uncover, and help the man, woman or child to deal with the damage that has been done.
At the end of Splintered Innocence, Peter Heinl quotes the Greek saying ‘ War is the father of all things’ and relates it to the history of his native Germany, currently taking in the majority of Syrian refugees currently stranded in Europe. He goes on to suggest that now we know the horrors war is parent to, perhaps we should re-write the saying as ‘Peace is the father of all things’, and who, witnessing the plight of the millions displaced by war in Syria, could pray for anything less?