Shell-Shocked Great War Veterans: A Four Nations Methodology
This week, Michael Robinson (University of Liverpool) discusses shell-shocked Great War veterans across the four nations.
With regards to a contemporary medical understanding of shell-shock, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) arguably offers the closest comparison. Its continued significance with regards to our understanding of the First World War has been influenced by the famous post-war memoirs of ex-servicemen of ex-officers Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, who both recounted their experiences of shell-shock. Similarly, Pat Barker’s critically and commercially successful Regeneration trilogy only served to reinforce shell-shock as an integral cultural reference point. Yet, these representations have arguably been damaging to the historiography. These works focus primarily on the officer class which has led the working-class private’s torment to be comparatively obscured despite their sizeable majority.
It was 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 analysis of the British Tommy’s experience of shell-shock was offered.[i] Yet Leese, and subsequent work into the mentally ill veteran, has rarely looked beyond England. Barham explained his omission by stating the separate volumes of archival material necessitates each nation to have a study of its own.[ii] A Four Nations approach remains unaddressed. Perhaps its omission is unsurprising. There are inherent problems when researching the post-1918 experience of combat neurosis. Over 80,000 cases of shell-shock were officially recognised by British Army personnel. This figure equated to just 1.28% of the 6,218,540 casualties sustained by nations within the British Empire who had troops serving at the Western Front.[iii]
In addition to the small ratio, the availability of source material is problematic. Few physically disabled ex-servicemen left sources which commented upon their experiences. This problem was manifested for those mentally disabled as a result of war service. In the legacy of Victorian masculinity, mental breakdown was viewed as a great taboo which would have silenced those ashamed to articulate their suffering. Periodic mental breakdowns would have frequently occurred during the inter-war years but gone unrecorded.[iv] Indeed, one popular self-help book written by a neurasthenic British Great War veteran stressed the importance for mentally wounded servicemen to restrain from talking to anyone about their troubles. Wendy Holden argues ‘the medical consequences of severe trauma to the moral and mental state on the battle lines were, it seemed, unquantifiable… [and] incalculable’.[v]
Yet, this should not disqualify attempts to engage with this topic. Holden’s assertion that these men’s post-war experience can only be ‘guessed at’ is incorrect. It has been a mistake to assume that the post-war lives of the shell-shocked non-officer veteran are silent and untraceable. Records tell us that 65,000 Great War veterans received of a pension for a psycho-neurotic ailment, and we can utilise a broad source base to investigate the experiences of these men. Archival records of the British Government Department established in 1916 to assist disabled pensioners, the Ministry of Pensions, prove invaluable to such a study. Whilst a small number of post-war files relating to the post-war treatment of shell-shock have survived, a wealth of material regarding regional infrastructure and assistance with regards to employment, pensions and social reception of all disabled ex-servicemen in the UK remains openly available. This appreciation of the psychologically damaged veteran within the wider disabled ex-service community correlates with recent research by Julie Anderson who has urged historians to avoid separating mental and physical disability arguing that both conditions are intimately associated.[vi]
It remains the case, however, that these sources provide little detail on individual shell-shocked pensioners. In an attempt to redress this imbalance, individual claimant pension files are utilised. Unfortunately, out of an estimated 1,137,800 original Great War pension files, only 22,756 Great War pension files have survived; just 1,243 files cover neurasthenia. In addition, very few of the records relate to Ireland with around sixty per-cent of the overall pension sample relating to pensioners in the London Region. Nevertheless, the records do contain a significant minority of English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish pensioners. These pension records provide a wealth of material including correspondence written by the pensioner and detailed reports of his annual medical board inspections. This facilitates a fascinating record-linkage by providing an individual case study to utilise alongside regional Ministry of Pensions documents. A utilisation of the aforementioned source material provides further evidence of Barham’s thesis that ‘the historiography of the ‘silent working-class soldier’ has obscured much of what were actually very noisy encounters’.[vii]
As Jason Crouthamel has claimed: ‘The history of mental illness is, however, still a developing field, and one of the areas that begs more research is the experience of traumatized men after 1918.’[viii]As we approach the centenary of the Armistice, a fuller consideration of the whole of the United Kingdom is required to investigate whether shell-shocked veterans’ war service really did end with the official cessation of hostilities. Indeed, while the wartime experiences of soldiers from the various Dominions and Colonies within the British Empire have been produced, little work has been presented which analyses disabled imperial Great War veterans who returned to colonies and dominions across the British Empire. A host of archives and research resources are ready and waiting to facilitate both a Four Nations and Transnational approach into this important, undervalued and timely subject.
[i]Peter Leese, Shell-Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War (London, 2002).
[ii]Peter Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (London, 2004), p. 10.
[iii]Mark Harrison, The Medical War: British military medicine in the First World War (Oxford, 2010), p. 11.
[iv]Eric Coplans, ‘Some observations on Neurasthenia and shell-shock’ in Lancet, 31 October 1931, p. 960.
[v]Wendy Holden, Shell-Shock: The Psychological Impact of the War (London, 2001), p. 7, p. 66.
[vi]Julie Anderson, “Jumpy Stump’: amputation and trauma in the First World War’, in First World War Studies, 6 (2015), pp 9-19.
[vii]Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War, p. 315.
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 Academia.edu profile.