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The Shock of the Frontline: Psychological Trauma in the Great War

As the centenary of the outbreak of World War I approaches, we will be encouraged to remember the fallen of a conflict that tore the world apart. Official commemorations, exhibitions, books and television series will echo the sequence of events a century ago. The bravery and heroism of soldiers who endured the trenches will be foremost in the public consciousness, and now that the original events are beyond memory, extensive efforts will be made to engage new generations in understanding what the soldiers of the conflict went through. In the words of the Ode of Remembrance quoted at Remembrance Sunday services, “we will remember them”.

For many families, however, the commemorations will raise more complex emotions. The stories of their ancestors don’t fit so easily into the narrative. The traumatic experiences of the trenches, and the unprecedented and unexpected nature of modern warfare, left their mark on soldiers for life. The exact extent of this is not entirely clear – most soldiers returning from the war did not talk much about what happened, finding that their families couldn’t relate to their experiences, so emotions were bottled up. In the most severe cases, though, the symptoms of shell shock were not so easily disguised. Officers and men of all ranks and backgrounds were affected, and 19 military hospitals were wholly devoted to their treatment. A decade after the war, around 65,000 veterans in Britain were still receiving treatment for psychological problems.

Two recent talks, hosted by Maudsley Learning, provided a fascinating insight into the problems of shell shock, and how it was viewed at the time. Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Director of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research Unit at King’s College London looked at the case of Private Harry Farr. Farr was a British soldier, originally from Kensington, who joined the army in 1909 and was in the 1st Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment. In September 1916, at the height of the Battle of the Somme, Farr disappeared from the frontline. When he was found at the rear, he said “I can’t stand it”. At that point, he was ordered to see the medical officer but refused. Farr went missing and was found again several times before being arrested for cowardice. In the Field Court Martial that followed, Farr received a death warrant and was shot on 18th October 1916.

Farr’s case received renewed interest in 2006 when it was at the centre of a campaign seeking pardons for the 306 British Empire soldiers executed during World War I. Professor Wessely was an expert witness in the judicial review that led to then Defence Secretary Des Browne  seeking a statutory group pardon through an Act of Parliament. While this was generally well received by the public, it was a move that many historians and military personnel disagreed with. Professor Wessely is among the latter group. “I don’t believe it is right for us to apologise for what they did,” he told the audience at the Maudsley Learning event. He believes that there is a danger of smugness in judging people by modern standards which is especially inappropriate when dealing with mental health matters.

There is no doubt that Farr was a victim of shell shock. In fact, he had been diagnosed prior to September 1916 and invalided three times. But no-one stood up for him during the Court Martial which records that “all the men know he’s no good”. Wessely argues that Farr’s key failing was that he was seen as letting his mates down when they needed each other the most – 150 men of the West Yorkshire Regiment died in the bombardment during which Farr disappeared. When he was asked if he had sought medical attention, Farr said no as he felt OK away from the sound of gunfire, which turned out to be an unwise admission. He was clearly not suffering from a total nervous breakdown, and he wasn’t insane; but he was guilty of refusing orders and he knew the consequences of his actions.

Even once Farr had been sentenced, the odds were that he would survive. There was a long sequence of reviews by increasingly senior officers during the Court Martial process, and as Professor Wessely points out, a lot of the comments added push towards showing mercy. Shooting soldiers was disliked, not least because it was bad for morale, and so every effort was made to avoid it. Only 18 soldiers were executed for cowardice during the Great War, although a further 266 were executed for desertion.

Before any death penalty was carried out, it had to be signed by General Haig as Commander In Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France. Haig actually refused to sign nine out of ten death penalties that came to him, nearly always choosing to show compassion and granting a reprieve. But he had to be constantly alert for a collapse in morale and ensure that military discipline was maintained. As a professional soldier, Harr was expected to show the highest standards of duty of discipline, setting an example to the volunteer Kitchener army recruited after the outbreak of war. Professor Wessely warns us against judging with the benefit of hindsight: in 1916 Haig didn’t know that the Allies were going to win the war, and his army was under the pressure of an industrialised warfare that had never been seen before.

The understanding of shell shock advanced considerably during the war, as the second talk by Edgar Jones, Professor of the History of Medicine and Psychiatry at King’s College London, demonstrated. Before World War I, mental illness was generally treated in county asylums, usually outside towns in prison-like buildings that the best doctors sought to avoid. The stigmas attached to the asylums meant that people waited until illnesses became severe before diagnosis and sectioning. Shell shock forced people to reconsider mental illness and how it should be treated. Leading psychiatrists such as Dr Albert Wilson had believed that there wouldn’t be any mental illness resulting from the war because all the recruits were so enthusiastic but the reality of the high casualty rates at the frontline led to the start of a medical revolution.

While Professor Jones argues that the developments in World War I represent incremental gain rather than dramatic change in the treatment of mental illness, and that “it takes the Second World War to create real change”, there were major advances in research and understanding. As specialist hospitals opened up, the leading doctors of the time were attracted to treating patients with shell shock symptoms, and with no protocol to follow or targets to meet, they were able to explore different ideas away from the public eye. Doctors would never have had this freedom to experiment with treatments in the traditional asylums.

Pioneering doctors published widely on their research in the years after the war. It became clear that shell shock could affect anyone, regardless of age, class, rank, education or family history; previously it had been seen as the result of weakness of character, which itself was believed to be hereditary. Mental illness came to be understood as an interaction between personality and environment, and doctors from mainstream medicine started to tackle the causes and treatment of mental illness.

A century on from World War I, our understanding of mental illness has of course advanced considerably. Medical science can now explain shell shock. Our response to the case of Harry Farr is very different to that of his contemporaries. We may feel horror at his execution, but we cannot go back on the past, and as Professor Wessely argues, “to apologise for something you’re not responsible for is just sentimental”. While we cannot change history, men like Harry Farr deserve our understanding, and to be remembered.

About James Taylor

James Taylor is a writer and television producer. He is the co-author of the bestselling books Spitfire Ace and Bomber Crew and has worked on historical documentaries including The Wildest Dream, Munich: Mossad’s Revenge, Secrets of Egypt and Carthage: The Roman Empire. Through his company Altogether Media (www.altogethermedia.co.uk), he brings together co-production and distribution partners for factual television and media projects.

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