The Four Nations and Beyond: The post-Armistice experiences of shell-shocked British Army veterans

The Four Nations and Beyond: The post-Armistice experiences of shell-shocked British Army veterans

This week, PhD student Michael Robinson (University of Liverpool) discusses the lack of four nations in historiography concerning the First World War and shell shock.

Despite David Fitzpatrick describing the First World War as ‘the single most central experience in twentieth-century Ireland’,[i] William Butler was correct when he pointed out in a recent Four Nations blog post that ‘Ireland’s participation in the First World War has, until recently, been a challenging subject to tackle. It was one that had largely been overlooked by historians, principally because it was a difficult subject to come to terms with within a nationalist narrative.’[ii] However, as the peace process progressed, culminating in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the resulting quest for reconciliation between unionists and nationalists allowed the Great War to become a key point of reference to remember a period of collective experience.[iii] One of the most under researched areas was, as Keith Jeffery stated, the medical aspect of the war which in the 1990s were ‘almost completely uncharted.’[iv] Despite the recent increase in research, much still remains to be done. One glaring omission in the historiography is the post-Armistice treatment and reception of mentally disabled veterans in Ireland.[v] Paul Taylor’s recent study Heroes or Traitors? Experiences of Southern Irish Soldiers Returning from the Great War, 1919-1939 deserves admirable praise for touching upon the plight of these emotionally scarred veterans. However, his timely and hugely informative study into the general veteran experience is broad in scope. Addressing 100,000 veterans in the Irish Free State, plenty of gaps for future research remains not only with regards to shell-shocked veterans who returned to ‘Southern Ireland’ but also the north.[vi]

In comparison, in Britain, shell-shock is still a culturally and historically resonant metaphor of the Great War. This resonance has been undoubtedly influenced by the highly publicised writings of servicemen such as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. This understanding was enforced by Pat Barker’s critically and commercially successful Regeneration trilogy. It was, however, only in 2002, with Peter Leese’s Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War, that the first in-depth monograph on Britain’s experience with trauma in the conflict was published.[vii] Such a delay is understandable. The working-class soldier was far more likely to suffer silently without recording his experiences in contrast to the middle-class and educated doctors and psychiatrists recounted their experiences in an abundance of diaries and journals.[viii] Such an omission is also likely to have been dictated by the early-twentieth century society that these men lived where, in the legacy of Victorian masculinity, mental breakdown was viewed as a great taboo.[ix] As a result, the voice of the mentally disabled remained silent.

Fiona Reid’s Broken Men: Shell-Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain, 1914-1930 was another hugely significant contribution to the study of shell-shocked British servicemen both during the conflict but also after the Armistice.[x] Reid acknowledged that historians had ‘written extensively about war time shell shock’ but that ‘the life of the mentally wounded man after the armistice has been strangely neglected’.[xi] One historian who tackled this omission head on is Peter Barham who analysed the lives of Great War servicemen who were institutionalised within an asylum. It is not only their lived experiences which he addresses, but also the impact the war had on mental health treatment in post-war England. The latter was recently built upon by Suzie Grogan’s ‘Shell-Shocked Britain: the First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health.[xii] However, neither Leese, Reid, Barham, nor Grogan devote any particular attention to Ireland. There is also an absence of attention to Scotland, Wales or those from across the British Empire who suffered mentally as a result of their service in a British Army uniform during the conflict. As Barham points out: ‘The volume I have unearthed has led me to finally concentrate almost exclusively on the lives of ex-servicemen in England. It would have required a much longer, and different, book to have done justice to Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the dominions’.[xiii] In this respect, the lack of research into the post-war experiences of shell-shocked veterans who returned to the Four Nations and beyond, and the influence, if any, that the First World War and shell-shock had on perceptions and treatment of mental health in these nations, ensures that a wide scope of research remains to be done. What better time to address these issues than in the centenary years of the conflict?

[i] David Fitzpatrick, Ireland and the First World War (Dublin, 1986), Preface vii.

[ii] William, Butler, Recruiting and Propaganda during the opening months of the First World War; a Four Nations approach to the case in Ireland’.

[iii] Adrian Gregory and Senia Paseta, ‘Introduction’, in Adrian Gregory and Senia Paseta (eds.), Ireland and the Great War: A War To Unite Us All? (Manchester, 2002), p. 6.

[iv] Keith Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War (Cambridge, 1998), p. 156.

[v] Joanna Bourke offers an integral insight into the subject for historians to build upon, but, owing to the size of scholarly journals, much more remains to be done; Joanna Bourke, ‘Shell-Shock, Psychiatry, and the Irish Soldier During the First World War’, in Adrian Gregory and Senia Paseta (eds.), Ireland and the Great War. “A War To Unite Us All?” (Manchester, 2002), pp. 155-70

[vi] Paul Taylor, Heroes or Traitors?: Experiences of Southern Irish Soldiers Returning from the Great War, 1919-1939 (Liverpool, 2015).

[vii] Peter Leese, Shell-Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War (Basingstoke, 2002).

[viii] Peter Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War, (London, 2007) p. 6.

[ix] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London, 1987).

[x] Fiona Reid, Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain, 1914-1930 (London, 2010)

[xi] Ibid., p. 4.

[xii] Suzie Grogan, Shell-Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Barnsley, 2014).

[xiii] Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War, p. 10.

Michael attained funding for his PhD from the University of Liverpool’s block grant in 2012. His thesis addresses the post-Armistice experience of Great War veterans who returned to Ireland with a mental disability as a result of war service. In particular, he is interested in those who required institutionalisation in an asylum, and is also interested in studying the impact their return had on their families. Check out his profile.


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