On Time

14947785_10154825019871042_8680925260221803816_nMy mother was early for everything. She believed deeply that both that punctuality was the politeness of princes and that if a travel delay could occur, it would. As a result, she left hours of time for delayed subways, traffic jams and accidents whenever she traveled. From an early age my brother, sister and I became used to arriving cinemas not merely in time for the previews (and later both the ads and the previews) but with time to spare before.  When flying, we would get to the airport not the recommended two-to-three hours ahead of departure, to deal with long check in and security queues, but another hour or so on top of that, when the predicted traffic jam on the way to the airport failed to materialise. It is a habit all three of us have internalised, adopting or reacting against in varying degrees. Now, living at wide geographical distances from each other and our parents, being early has become an important part of our common heritage.

* * *

My mother died six weeks ago, age 73. She left, as always, far too early.

* * *

Time does funny things when you are caring for the ill and dying. The final month of my mother’s life was the longest I have ever lived through. Life was on hold for me and my family. The deadlines which have governed so much of my adult life ceased to matter to its structure, ceased almost to exist at all. Time was measured out in taxi rides, subway delays and promises that we would hear about a hospice bed by next week, Wednesday, that evening, soon. And yet the week I took my children to the seaside, on my own and away from my mother, a week that by all expectations should have stretched out endlessly through stress and worry, passed by in a flash, a suspended interlude of reading, swimming, laughing, paddling, digging and reflection. The day the much-desired hospice bed became available was mainly spent waiting – for the paperwork to be completed, for the doctor to come and see my mother – or driving in entirely the wrong direction, an error which meant my mother’s carefully timed dose of medication was missed. Boredom and anxiety should have stretched the day to eternity; yet it was only when I arrived home that evening, 12 hours after I had left, that I realised just how long it had lasted. By contrast, the hours between 8 and midnight, when I kept vigil at my mother’s bedside for three nights during her final days, drew out endlessly as I listened to her sedated breathing, willing each agonizing, eternal pause between breaths to end.

* * *

And then there were the moments when caring meant stretching out to touch hands with the past. On an earlier visit, when looking after my mother after she had come out of hospital following an operation to fuse her spine, fractured by the pressure of the cancerous tumours that had invaded it, one of my main tasks was to help her shower. Washing her hair and towelling her dry, I was echoing her bathing of me as child and my own bathing of my daughter, linking age and generations through caring touch. I don’t know if my brother, cradling our mother in his arms, with touch the only tool at his disposal to help her contain her pain, felt the same inversion of the parent-child relationship, but generational reciprocity echoed there too. And there were the couple of times my sister, sister-in-law and I shared the task of cleaning and changing her in her final day. In those few moments, within the wider pattern of caring shared among all her children, it felt as if we three joined the long, long history of women caring for the ill and dying in domestic spaces. All the modern technologies and advanced analgesics which we turned to help my mother keep pain as much at bay as possible in those final days could not replace the need for caring human contact, contact which had the power, at least in my case, to take us beyond the immediacy of family relationship and weave us into a longer narrative of human history.

* * *

Time, according to the cliché, is a greater healer. The witness of the many friends and acquaintances who share the common but entirely unique grief of losing a mother is contradictory on this subject. Some have learned to accommodate its ache; for other, the pain has become in time different but not less. Today I remain in the midst of mourning, sideswiped at unexpected moments by furious anger at the fates that did not give my mother more time – time to welcome grandchildren and watch them grow, to celebrate her children’s achievements, to see more films, television programmes, theatre, to read more books – and then to tell us precisely what she thought of them. I still find myself in tears at odd and unexpected times – on the train, on street corners, walking my children to school. I hope that, in time, I will learn to live in a more comfortable way with this new reality of loss and absence that I inhabit. In the meantime, all I can do is take my memories of my mother – her gifts and her faults, her idiosyncracies and habits, her passions and mundanities – and make them transcend time by writing them into my history.

* * *

Mum was the first and most loyal of my readers, whether of my articles, my books or this blog. On the day of her move to the hospice, stuck in traffic on the FDR Drive, with her pain medication wearing off, she asked me if I was planning any more blog posts and, if so, what. Yes, I said, I’m planning to write on care and temporality, but I’m not quite sure how yet. This is that post.

* * *

There have been many who have taught and inspired me over the years, many of them women. All have, over time, shaped me into the historian and writer that I am today.  But first, last, and always, there was my mother.

* * *

In loving memory of

Joanna Anderson

30th July, 1945 – 30th August, 2018.

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Lest We Forget

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Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory, Cannongate

This year I have noticed that several of my contacts on social media have used the phrase ‘Lest We Forget’ as part of their remembrance practices in advance of Armistice Day.  I’m not sure if this is a new trend or if I am just more aware of it this year. As this year’s definitely more vociferous debates over the politicization of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance indicate, the words and symbols through which we commemorate wars and their legacies are nothing if not mutable across time, responding to changing social and political contexts. As someone who wears a poppy to commemorate the disabled men for whom the manufacture of poppies formed their employment in war’s aftermath as much as the men who died in the war, the multiple meanings of any given object or phrase in relation to this emotive subject have always been a source of fascination.

At the same time, I know that this particular phrase has an association with Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday because I am aware the my emotions in encountering it in this context are familiar. Once again, I am struck by the oddity of the use of this phrase outside the wider context of Kipling’s ‘Recessional’, the poem with which it is so strongly associated. My awareness of the phrase’s ubiquity this year sent me back to that poem, written not to commemorate wars but Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. And for many reasons the 120-year-old poem struck me as more apposite than ever, in ways far beyond those the poet could ever have envisioned.  Today it seems to me worth quoting in full:

Recessional
God of our fathers, known of old,
   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
   Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies;
   The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
   An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

(1897)

24th June, 2016

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939

We need to talk about Arthur Shelby

Firstly, an apology.  This is not going to be a very seasonal or festive post, although hopefully there will be one of those next week.  Rather, this is something that, as is becoming increasingly common, I have been meaning to write for a long time, but have struggled to fit in with everything else going on.  Essentially, the teaching term opened up its maw in October and swallowed up anything that might conceivably have been blogging time.  But now my last bit of marking is completed (at least until the new year exams) and I have cleared my desk of all admin and (bar editing an article on the American Field Service Ambulance) I am free to consider series 2 of Peaky Blinders, the commemoration of the First World War and the problem of male violence.

These last two topics are something that, unsurprisingly perhaps, have been preoccupying me quite a bit this year.  The question of commemoration has haunted pretty much everything I have done or written in relation to work for at least 12 months, although there have been times when it has felt as if it has occupied every waking moment for a lot longer. (War fatigue hit with full force on 12th November in my case, although I think I am starting to get my second wind.)  The issue of male violence as a legacy of the First World, by contrast, has been a more intermittent concern.  It isn’t directly related to my current research (although it is likely to be an important issue for the project I have been hawking around to numerous potential funders for over a year now) but it has been popping up in all sorts of interesting places, including the British Academy’s War: An Emotional History Conference, my lecture at the Freud Museum in October and, finally, in Peaky Blinders, where Arthur Selby loses control in the boxing ring and beats a man to death.

As I posted on Twitter at the time, when I write about the ugliness of shell shock, that is, at least in part, what I mean.  Because the narrative of the programme clearly links Arthur’s violent outbursts to his emotional reaction to his war experience.  This is an interesting shift from series 1, in which Arthur’s violence was portrayed as more psychopathic, violence for the love of violence rather than as a form of emotional release.  An even more interesting shift is that it is Tommy, the man who suffered throughout series 1 from nightmares relating to his days as a tunneller on the Western Front, who voices the view that Arthur needs to get over whatever lingering trauma he may be suffering because the war is over and done with.  This particularly piece of characterisation sadly didn’t ring true for me.  Surely, of all people, Tommy should know that the war is never truely over for some men.  One definition of war trauma is that it condemns those who suffer from it to relive their experiences as the present rather than, as healthy psyches are capable of doing, render it into livable, if unhappy, memory.   By putting the ‘all in the past’ stance on war trauma into Tommy’s mouth, the drama, so much of which does emotional justice to the era it represents (even if it does so most successfully through anachronism), descends momentarily into the realm of cosy cliché, taking on the middlebrow narrative that war trauma can, ultimately be cured through the love of (possibly) good woman.

That being said, Peaky Blinders remains, from a historical viewpoint, a far more exciting dramatic exploration of the social and emotional legacies of the First World War than, for instance, Downton Abbey, the fifth series of which was broadcast at much the same time in Britain.  Downton set out much more explicitly to depict the legacy of the war through its preposterous and inaccurate memorial subplot which made me want to hurl the works of Alex King and Mark Connelly [1] (among many others) at the heads of the script writers.  Yet one of the most significant legacies, that most men who fought in the war returned but changed by their experiences, was completely ignored.  Thomas, the drama’s only surviving combat veteran now that Matthew Crawley has been killed off, is, indeed, troubled, but his drug use, unlike that of Arthur Shelby, is attributed to his emotional conflict over being gay (that again!) rather than any memory of his war service.  Even his physical wound, the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his hand which did miraculously little damage at the time, does not seem to bother him at all any more, at least based on the representation on screen.  Indeed, long-term physical disability is remarkably absent in Downton, although I think I caught sight of a man with a missing arm at the unveiling of the war memorial.

Which brings me to the subject of wider commemorations of the war in this centenary year.  Throughout the year we have, appropriately enough, talked a great deal about the reasons why the war broke out and carried on for as long as it did. We seem to currently be talking about the history of the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front.  This is not something that interests me a great deal, not simply because I don’t have any interest in football beyond the ways in which association with football (either as players or spectators) was used to construct ideas of patriotic masculinity (very negatively in the case of Sapper’s short stories, if you are wondering), but also because whatever happened on Christmas Day 1914 is not an overarching symbol of the war in its entirety, any more than 1st July, 1916 was.  To understand why men fought and continued fighting, we need to look at these individual days within the wider context of the 1,560 days of the conflict, all days in which, somewhere, men joined the army, killed and were killed, thought kindly of the enemy, rebelled against their commanders and reaffirmed their sense of duty to whatever they felt they were fighting for. So focussing on one particular day as a way of remembering the war risks losing our perspective (as I fear some of my colleagues may be running the risk of doing) about the full extent of what it is we are commemorating.

But the Christmas Truce has, at least, the redeeming factor of being, like the outbreak of the war, an appropriate moment this year to pause, think and discuss what happened 100 years ago.  I have struggled a great deal more with the focus this year upon the dead of the war, with any number of projects examining extant memorials and creating new ones.  The dead should, of course, be a hugely important part of our commemorations, but by making them the centre of the centenary from the outset runs the risk of recreating the struggles over commemoration of the interwar period when, as Dan Todman as noted, the interests of the bereaved came to take priority over those of the survivors,[2] a situation which had important and devestating implications for those who, like Arthur Selby, continued to suffer from the traumas of war experience long after it was all over and done with.

Which is why, as we come to the end of this first year of commemorations and gird our loins for the second, I reiterate a plea that I know I have made before, that we talk about men like Arthur Shelby, men like Robert Fentiman and men like the one cited by Michael Roper whose child recalled how he eschewed as violence in the wake of war, including corporal punishment, deeming it pointless and ineffective.  Only by talking about these men, and representing them in our popular cultural as much as we do the dead, can we ensure that they too are remembered.

[1] Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance (London: Bloomsbury, 1998); Mark Connelly, The Great War, Memory and Ritual: Commemoration in the City and East London, 1916-1939 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002).

[2] Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Hambledon and London, 2005), 53.

Remembering Robert Fentiman

I started this month with two frantic weeks of research, paper presentation and working at the Great Yorkshire Show.  By the time the last event, a two-day conference on the emotional history of war at the British Academy, came around, I was exhausted, sick of train travel and worried that my children no longer knew who I was.  I seriously considered giving it a miss; I wasn’t giving a paper and wasn’t sure how emotional history might be significant for my work on RAMC servicemen.

However, I had booked a hotel room and paid for my train ticket, so I packed my bag and headed back to London.  And boy am I glad I went!  Not only was it a conference attended by many of the most notable historians of the cultural history of war (walking into the room where coffee was served felt a bit like seeing large parts of my PhD bibliography made flesh), but it forced me to rethink the nature of my work as a form of emotional history.  In fact, the ideas about emotional labour and the archiving of emotion that I took away from those two days have made me completely rethink the structure of the book proposal I am in the process of writing.

I still have a huge amount of work to do sorting out how my work is located in the history of emotions, but I’ve been thinking about one idea in particular over the past couple of weeks.  During the round table session which closed the conference, one point was made three times, in three different ways, namely how do we, as historians, research and write about emotions that make us feel uncomfortable.  The conference was divided into sessions on love, fear and grief.  None of these are comfortable emotions, of course, and the evoke strong reactions in us as historians and in those who read what we write.  But there are other emotions felt by participants in war that we didn’t discuss directly, skirting around or mentioning only in relation to other emotions: anger, joy, relief, pride, shame.  These are emotions that don’t necessarily fit into the narratives we want to tell ourselves about war.  They highlight the power of war not only to traumatise, creating victims of its participants, but also to brutalise, even dehumanise, the perpetrators of violence.  But they are as important a part of the historical narratives of war as an emotional experience as those easier, possibly more acceptable emotions.

Which brings me to Robert Fentiman.  Robert Fentiman is one of the central characters in Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1928 novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Like his brother, George, another key character, Robert served in the war.  Unlike George, who was gassed and suffers from shell shock throughout the novel, Robert, is described as ‘frightfully hearty – a regular army type.’ [1]  Indeed, he chooses to remain in the army after the war.  Throughout the novel, the differences between himself and his brother are emphasised.  Where George has a fit of hysterics upon the discovery of his grandfather’s corpse, Robert [spoiler alert], laughs with humour when recalling using the two-minute silence to hide the body in order to commit fraud. Neither is a particularly attractive character.  George is depicted as bullying his wife while Robert is described as ‘thick-skinned; the regular unimaginative Briton. I believe Robert would cheerfully go through another five years of war and think it all a very good rag. … I remember Robert, at that ghastly hole at Carency, where the whole ground was rotten with corpses–ugh!–potting those swollen great rats for a penny a time, and laughing at them. Rats. Alive and putrid with what they’d been feeding on. Oh, yes, Robert was thought a damn good soldier.’ [2]

Neither George nor Robert is particularly emblematic of how we like to construct our image of veterans of the First World War today.  As I have argued before, our culture wants to smooth out the image of shell-shock sufferer, to remove the violence and ugliness in order to create the image of a victim we can pity without qualms.  But, even in this bowdlerized form, the shell-shock sufferer retains an important place in our cultural memory, indeed an increasingly important place as the definition of shell shock expands to encompass an increasing number of men.  By comparison, we seem to have little cultural memory of the Robert Fentimans of the war, the men who went through it phlegmatically, found an acceptable niche for themselves in post-war society, and displayed little or no sentiment about publically commemorating the dead, however much they privately honoured their comrades.

Some might argue that such men did not exist, that even if they did appear to display resilience in public, the psychic wounds that war inflicted on them were repressed, to echo down the generations and that, to this extent, all men who had been under a rolling barrage, as Robert Graves and Alan Hodge asserted in 1940, suffered from shell shock. [3] Yet Graves and Hodge go on to assert that what they called shell shock was a temporary condition. The resilient, even thick-skinned war veteran was certainly a common enough cultural figure for Sayers to place him in direct, antithetical comparison to the equally emblematic shell-shock sufferer in a popular novel that sold well in the interwar years.  George and Robert Fentiman are two sides of the same coin, and would almost certainly have been recognised as such at the time, yet today we only remember one of them.

As I say, it is not easy to write about men like Robert Fentiman.  They aren’t particularly likable or sympathetic.  They do not fit into our definitions of heroes.  But these men too fought the war; they too must form part of our history.  The challenge that War: An Emotional History set me was how to write about these men whose emotions I struggle to recognise and respond to in a way that is honest and does them the honour they deserve.  I will be grappling with this over the next couple of months.  If you would like to hear how I get on, I will be giving a lecture on The Fentiman Brothers at War: Shell Shock, Emotional Resilience and the Cultural Memory of the First World War at the Freud Museum in London on 2nd October. Do join me.

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, New English Library Paperback edition (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003), 14.

[2] Sayers, 99-100.

[3] Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Lond Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 (New Yorkk: W.W. Norton and Company, 1940), 16.

‘Men whose minds the dead have ravished’

A new public sculpture was unveiled in Seaham, Co. Durham on 29th May.  Entitled 1101, the piece, by the sculptor Ray Lonsdale, shows a 9.5 foot soldier in First World War uniform sitting at rest and is intended to reflect a moment of contemplation in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.  It is also, apparently, supposed to represent ‘what is now known as Post Traumatic Street Syndrome [sic] (PTSD) which many faced as they returned from the battlefields.’ [1]  Even ignoring the typos, this interpretation worries me for two reasons.

The first has to do with the fact that I don’t think we should retrospectively diagnose soldiers of the First World War with a psychiatric condition which was not fully defined until 1980 and which remains contentious today.  This is not to say that First World War servicemen didn’t suffer from psychological wounds; many most certainly did.  But, as I have explained in more detail here, shell shock (and or indeed hysteria, neurasthenia, disordered action of the heart or any of the other names given to psychological disability during and after the war) is not same thing as PTSD.

Setting the question of labeling aside, however, I still have serious reservations about this work of art as a representation of psychological war disability, whatever name we give it.  It shows the soldier as calm, contemplative, tired perhaps, maybe even sad, but seemingly in control of body and mind. There can be few adjectives further from the experiences of shell-shocked servicemen, as depicted in the literature and art of the time, than ‘calm’, ‘contemplative’ or ‘controlled’.  These were men whose bodies jerked and twitched, who woke screaming from nightmares, who leaped violently at sudden noises, who stuttered, struggled physically to overcome hysterical mutism or groped blindly through hysterical blindness. They had lost control of both mind and body, a condition that was fearful both to experience and behold. These men were not calm or contemplative about their condition.

The pain of psychological wounding comes across viscerally in some of the great literature and art of the period.  Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ is powerfully physical in its description and the disgust and pity it evokes.  The art of Otto Dix is agonizing to look at.

Dix Shell Shock 127-otto-dix-verwundeter-map-der-krieg-jpgThe viewer recoils from the pain and violence of the images.  This is how psychological disability was experienced by many First World War servicemen and those who lived with them – as pain, fear, disgust and violence. To represent the condition through a generic image of a soldier, as something calm and totalizing, runs the risk of whitewashing from history the individual subjective pain suffered by many that made their condition as disabling as any physical wound or amputation.  Too many shell-shocked ex-servicemen suffered stigma and poor treatment throughout their lives.  I would hate to see the very real pain they suffered written out of history because it is too painful for us to contemplate today.

[1] ‘New World War One statue for Seaham seafront’, Sunderland Echo, 22nd May, 2014, http://www.sunderlandecho.com/what-s-on/new-world-war-one-statue-for-seaham-seafront-1-6630051, last accessed 25th June, 2014.

The $64,000 question

When I posted last month about all the topics that I was planning forthcoming posts on, the one that the overwhelming majority of readers (well, three) wanted to know more about was why shell shock is not ‘what we now know as PTSD’.  In fact, one reader was so keen to know more that she emailed me, asking me for a one-line summary to discuss with a student.  After some thought, I replied that the soundbite answer is that PTSD is a medical diagnosis, while shell shock is a cultural idea.

It is, of course, more complicated than this, although being forced to summarize my rather disparate ideas on the subject was a useful discipline and I hope that my reader and her student found enough meat on those rather bare bones to chew over in the interim.  But it is just a sound bite, so the question remains, why don’t I think that PTSD and shell shock are different terms for the same thing?

I will start with PTSD, the condition that I know rather less about but which I understand primarily as a medical diagnosis.  It has been part of public consciousness since 1980, when it was first officially recognised and appeared in DSM III, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  DSM V has recently been published, including a revised, hotly contested definition of PTSD which complicates the ‘constellation of symptoms’ that are classified as defining the condition.  Indeed, PTSD has never not been contested.  As Ben Shephard has pointed out, the recognition of the condition was viewed by some from the outset as politically driven, to improve state benefits for Vietnam veterans.  He also notes, however, that the recognition of PTSD in DSM III gave a previously ‘vague and emotive “post-Vietnam syndrome” … real intellectual authority.’ [1] This is an authority that the term has, despite much argument, maintained for over thirty years. It is not only ‘the overriding diagnosis for the psychiatric disorders of war’, [2] it is also a legally and medically recognized response to civilian traumas, diagnosed in victims of crime, industrial accident and medical traumas.

So how does this differ from shell shock? Shell shock was, after all, a term coined by a doctor attempting to diagnose a constellation of inexplicable symptoms which are now recognized as those associated with psychological wounding. The problem is that, as a medical concept, ‘shell shock’ was originally used in relation to the theory that shell blast (and burial alive caused by shell fire) resulted in microscopic neurological damage which in turn caused the more visible and seemingly inexplicable symptoms on display. Although an idea that continued to have its supporters throughout the First World War, it was one which did not stand up to scrutiny and, by mid-1916, shell shock was generally discredited as a medical term. Indeed, Charles Myers, credited with coining the term, would later write that it was ‘a singularly ill-chosen term; and in other respects … has proved a singularly harmful one’, [3] distracting, as it seemed to Myers, from a proper understanding of the psychic damage men were suffering from in response to the traumas of danger, pain and, above all, fear. At the same time, the British military authorities, concerned that the vibrant phrase was encouraging an epidemic of incurable nervous responses and convinced that the weakness it appeared to expose was contagious, with one shell-shocked soldier within a unit causing others to suffer, or pretend to suffer, from the condition as well, forbad its use in favour of more bureaucratic terms such as ‘Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous).’

Yet the phrase did not disappear. Almost as soon as it was coined it took on a life of its own, moving, as Jay Winter has argued, ‘from the medical to the metaphysical’ and turning ‘from a diagnosis into a metaphor.’ [4] From soldiers who, on seeing their comrades suffering from psychological wounds commented, ‘there was such a thing as shell shock’ to contemporary usage where to be shell-shocked by something is the common rhetorical response to almost any unexpected event, the term has become deeply embedded in the English language. Beyond this, shell shock has, for many years, been the symbolic wound of the war, the condition which all men suffered from and which was the clearest expression not only of their suffering and silencing (hysterical mutism was one symptom of the condition), but of the madness of war itself. It is not for nothing that the image of Blackadder with underpants on his head and pencils up his nose, feigning insanity as the only way out of an insane situation, is one of the two most iconic of the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. (The other, of course, is the final fade from men charging over the top to a poppy field, with death being the only other exit from the insanity of warfare.) Shell shock, then, has come to represent the psychological damage that war inflicts on men in a way that was not only not intended originally but also in ways that go far beyond any medical understanding of the psychological trauma of war.

Yet it is not simply that shell shock is, in one way, far more wide-ranging as a term than PTSD. Because in another way it is a far narrower term. PTSD did not merely refashion pre-existing ideas, as Allan Young has argued. [5] It also forged ‘A bridge … between “war neurosis” and the victims of civilian trauma that had never really existed before …. [In doing so it] helped to create a new, unitary kind of “trauma”.’ [6] Despite the almost reflexive use of ‘shell shock’ in moments of not-necessarily-traumatic shock, shell shock remains primarily a metaphor for the trauma and madness of warfare. By comparison, PTSD encompasses the psychological responses to a far greater variety of traumas. Amanda Holden may recently have expressed surprise at being diagnosed with PTSD following the traumatic birth of her daughter, claiming that she associated the condition primarily with the battlefield, but PTSD is regularly diagnosed in women who have had traumatic births, as well as victims of domestic violence and civil catastrophes such as railway accidents, taking it back to one of the earliest formulations of responses to psychological trauma, the 19th century condition ‘railway spine’.

Is PTSD becoming a cultural idea, then, through its use to define responses to traumas beyond the battlefield? I don’t think so. The framework within which it is used are still primarily medical, or medico-legal, and seek to limit the definition of those suffering from the condition, rather than expand it. No one has ever claimed of PTSD, as has been claimed of shell shock, that an entire generation suffered from it, and I doubt anyone will.

So no, PTSD is not simply ‘what we now call shell shock’, although it is possible to identify the condition initially termed as shell shock as an ancestor of what is now known as PTSD. But, as Hazel Croft argues, ‘Although each configuration of psychiatric injury draws on previous concepts, trauma has to be situated in the particular social, cultural and political circumstances … in which it is interpreted.’ [7] It is still possible to contextualised much of what is defined as PTSD this way; I am not sure the same can be said about the range of meanings that, today, the idea of shell shock is asked to encompass. It is not only that PTSD encompasses a potentially more sophisticated understanding of psychiatric disorder but that shell shock is not, and never really has been, a diagnostic term.  It is far, far more than that.

Disclaimer: All of the above refers exclusively to my reading of the history of shell shock in Britain and the resonance of the term in British culture.  The formulations of the meaning and significance of PTSD and shell shock as both terms and ideas in other cultures and other languages are different but are beyond my current competence and the scope of this post.

[1] Ben Shephard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914-1994 (London: Pimlico, 2000), p.367.

[2] Hazel Croft, ‘Gendered Diagnostics from Shellshock to PTSD, 1914-2010’ in Ana Carden-Coyne (ed.), Gender and Conflict Since 1914 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p117

[3] C.S. Myers, Shell Shock in France 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940), p.26

[4] Jay Winter, ‘Shell-shock and the Cultural History of the Great War’, Journal of Contemporary History , 35(1), 2000: 7.

[5] Allan Young, The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[6] Shephard, p.367

[7] Croft, p.110.