Calm down, dear, it’s only a drama!

We are now three weeks into the six-week run of The Crimson Field, BBC 1’s Sunday night drama set in a First World War ‘field hospital’ ‘somewhere in France’.  The quotation marks around ‘field hospital’ may give some indication as to my opinion of the programme.  It is one of a number of small inaccuracies that, like lice in a uniform, have been driving me (and a number of other historians of British medical care in the First World War) a bit nuts.

In fact, ‘field hospital’ was a term used very little after the Boer War.  I have come across a Territorial medical unit which used the term in relation to the hospital where they trained recruits before they were sent overseas as a field hospital, but the hospitals along the lines of communication were, by 1916, when The Crimson Field is ostensibly set, known as either Casualty Clearing Stations (what would formerly have been referred to as field hospitals) or Stationary or Base Hospitals (of which this appears to be one).

Is this sort of criticism too nit-picky?  Certainly, one of the reactions on Twitter to this type of comment (which I have been making a fair amount of over the past three weeks) has been ‘It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a drama!’ with the implication that criticizing the historical accuracy of the depiction is both unfair and detracts from others’ pleasure in watching.  Essentially, this reaction is a version of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.’

At one level, this is fair enough.  The Crimson Field is a drama rather than a history lesson, and I don’t have any problem with cosy Sunday evening historical dramas.  I actually have a soft spot (as well as remarkably high tolerance for a historian) for such dramas, having recently enjoyed The Musketeers and Call the Midwife, and even, once I had properly suspended disbelief, still relish a good episode of Downton Abbey.  But the BBC itself is creating a block to the sort of suspension of disbelief that I have achieved with Downton by attempting to locate The Crimson Field within its own narrative of historical commemoration.  The programme is part of the ‘World War One’ season and there are regular tweets and links to related factual content on the BBC’s website.  In other words, the BBC is presenting this as both drama and history, even though they are getting quite a lot of that history wrong.

Which brings me to the other reason I have problems with the ‘It’s drama, not history’ criticism.  Because a great deal of my criticism actually is of the programme as a drama.  Having started out quite well, introducing several strong female characters with the potential to develop into interesting individuals opening up new perspectives on the popular understanding of the First World War, the dramatic arc has all too rapidly declined into a series of mythic clichés enacted by stock figures who simply represent modern ideas rather than having any real personality, historic or otherwise.  As Amanda Vickery has pointed out, the plot predominantly involves the imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in 1916. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the drama feels clichéd and inauthentic as it tries to crowbar issues of class, race and sexuality into story lines that use endless accusations of cowardice as a shorthand for reactions to the horrors of war or attempts to deal with the complicated question of Irish politics in part of one sixty-minute episode.  In other words, The Crimson Field is not only poor history, but also not very good drama, by whatever standards you judge it.

So why do I keep watching?  Why not give it up as a bad job and let those who are enjoying the drama enjoy it in peace?  Two reasons, one superficial, one (I hope) rather less so.  The superficial reason is that, whatever the quality of the drama, the casting is, on the whole, very good.  It is not simply that I would watch Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones in pretty much anything they appeared in, however terrible, but also that they are good enough to bring depth to their parts.  Norris, in particular, has created a believably restrained and awe-inspiring matron, thankfully setting off the bizarre characterization of the hospital CO as a weak and deeply un-awe-inspiring figure.  I will probably keep watching to the end for her alone.

There is, however, a more important reason for why I will keep watching and, for that matter, keep tweeting as I do so.  It might be described as the ‘teachable moment’ excuse, to use a truly abominable American phrase.  Because I am trying to do is not merely criticize for the sake of finding fault, but to explain, insofar as 140 characters lets me, what my research has taught me about the historic reality of medical care in the First World War.  I can not only complain about the representation of a shell shock sufferer in the first episode, but also point out that he would most likely have been treated in isolation for the sake of general morale. Nor is the process only one way.  So far, questions I have had or points I have made have led to interesting discussions of how laundry was done at Base hospitals and the date at which female radiographers began working overseas.  I have thus learned something indirectly from the programme as well as, I hope, giving a little more historic depth to the understanding of a few viewers.

There is also an element of ‘Know thy enemy’ to this.  Yes, I despaired when the one fully-formed orderly character was revealed to be gay in the most historically unlikely of circumstances.  But this particular bit of trite 21st-century plot does provide an opportunity to explain that, while the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, it was, as far as I have been able to uncover, never in terms of suspect or criminal sexuality, but rather in terms of age and physical health.  Homosexuality as a pathology affecting war service was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) leveled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock, another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy.  Exploring these distinctions in masculinity is a key element of my research project; finding and exploiting the opportunities to disseminate my research and analysis more widely, in whatever unlikely form, is thus part of my professional remit.  In other words, I watch and critique because it is my job.

This is, of course, fundamentally the same defense for using Blackadder as a teaching tool about the history of the First World War.  The drama or comedy is the starting point, not the destination, and they probably have  more to tell us about the social and cultural context in which they have been created than about the historic realities of the period that they represent.  Using them in this way is not always comfortable.  For historians it means tackling popular historical misconceptions head on and sitting through the itchy discomfort of historically inaccurate dramas to find out what, exactly, has been portrayed and how.  For non-historians who wish to engage, it can mean having assumptions and beliefs punctured and deflated. At the very least, it means being forced out of a comfortable Sunday night of suspended disbelief.  Not everyone wants to spend their Sunday evening leisure engaging critically with what they are watching, and that of course is their prerogative. No one has to either watch and critique or read critical commentary if they choose not to. But I have to admit to enjoy bringing my practice of critical analysis to The Crimson Field of a Sunday, so I will carry on. And maybe in doing so I can also make a not very good drama at least a slightly better history lesson.

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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.

Of historians and politicians

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has decided that the best way to start off the centenary years of the First World War is through an article in the Daily Mail which attacks the ‘myths’ of the war and the ‘left-wing academics’ who he accuses of being ‘all too happy to feed those myths by attacking Britain’s role in the conflict’.  The response has been predictably excitable, with various blog posts from a variety of researchers into the history of the First World springing up over the weekend (a fair representation can be found here, here and here), as well as several articles in the print media and from the BBC giving the views of everyone from Tristram Hunt to Margaret Macmillan to Tony Robinson

For me, however, one of the most interesting interventions was one of the earliest, a discussion between Sir Richard Evans (held up by Gove as the prime example of a ‘left-wing academic’ intent on discrediting British national pride) and Gary Sheffield (cited by Gove as a historian engaging in ‘proper study’ for his work on Douglas Haig) on the World At One on Radio 4. These men had been invited to contribute because they were named in Gove’s article, but what emerged most clearly from the debate was the difference of perspective offered by two different types of historical approach, the internationalist analysis which allowed Sir Richard to make an argument about Russia’s lack of democracy, and the national (but by no means nationalist) military history that informs Gary’s views on why the British Army (as an entity) fought the way it did.  These differing approaches expose the many-layered complexity of trying to understand the historic realities of why British men fought in the First World War.

From my perspective as a social and cultural historian, however, there was an important methodological perspective that was missing from this discussion, namely that of the personal or individual history.  This is an explicable, but nonetheless interesting omission, given that personal and family histories are the most common way into a discussion of First World War history for the non-specialist.  This is evidenced by the rash of ‘my grandfather told me’ tweets in response to the discussion of Gove’s article, as well as longer, more thoughtful discussions of individual motivations from researchers such as John Lewis-Stempel and David Underdown.  In my own work, there are plenty of examples of men with equally complex motivations for enlisting initially, as well as those whose ideas about what they, personally, were fighting for changed over the course of their service.

My current favourite example of this is David Randle McMaster, whose papers I read at the National Army Museum last year. McMaster was a bank clerk who enlisted in the RAMC in August 1914 and served with 24th and 2/1st Wessex Field Ambulances throughout the war.  McMaster’s motivations for enlisting were both patriotic and self-interested.  From the outset, he expressed his belief in the necessity of defending the country from invasion and his personal willingness to do so. The son of a Congregationalist draper, he was clearly aspirational and initially enquired about enlisting as an officer, something that, without a medical degree, he was unable to do in the RAMC, the unit he favoured because its non-combatant status could be squared with his religious qualms about killing and violence.  Later, in 1917, McMaster contemplated transferring to a combatant unit in order to attain the social status of officer.  He only decided against doing so when it became clear that he would only be offered a commission in an artillery regiment, rather than an infantry regiment which he viewed as having higher social status.  It is clear from the letters to his parents in which he discusses this decision at length that, in the two and a half years since his enlistment, McMaster’s belief in the justness of the cause he was fighting for had not been eroded.  If anything, it had been enhanced by his experiences under fire (as a stretcher bearer he came under fire and in contact with the extremes of what bullets and shrapnel could inflict on the human body on numerous occasions) to the point where he was willing to compromise the religious teachings with which he had been raised.

Yet McMaster cannot be defined as simply a patriotic jingoist either. At no point does he claim to be fighting for ‘democracy’ as an abstract ideal.  Rather, like so many others, he declared himself to be fighting in defense of home and freedom, in his case embodied in the figure of his mother.  The values he is fighting for aren’t those of politicians but far more concrete ideas about a very particular way of life and the freedoms, from conscription, for example, that it offered. From a 21st-century perspective, these freedoms may appear severely limited, being hedged about by restrictions of class, gender, race and social convention but they nonetheless had value and were deemed worth fighting for by many in 1914.

Why is the personal history of an individual like David Randle McMaster significant?  Partly because he fits part of a pattern with other men, mostly of similar social background and education, who were willing both to enlist and to continue fighting because of a belief in what they were fighting for grounded in an individual and concrete reality, rather than a series of abstractions.  And partly because he is not necessarily representative of all the 5 million British men who served, many of whom enlisted, for instance, because of a desire for glory, because they needed the work, or because, as Regular soldiers, it was their work. Nor is he representative of men who were conscripted, who fought because they had to, rather than because they either wanted to or were misled about what they were fighting for.  The reasons that men enlisted and served were mutiple, complex and contigent upon their personal circumstances and should not be simplified into narratives of either patriotism (as presented by Gove) or ‘lions led by donkeys’ (as suggested by Hunt).

So individual stories are important, giving a much-needed nuance to arguments about why the war was fought. At the same time, individual stories cannot stand alone as representative of every experience.  They need the context of the broader picture for their significance beyond the personal interest of their descendants to be properly evaluated. The benefits of this can be seen in such excellent social histories as Adrian Gregory’s The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War and Catriona Pennell’s A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland, both of which locate individual experience clearly in the contexts of geography, class and change over time. The letters of David Randle McMaster help explain why concepts of ‘democracy’ could still be used to justify a nation fighting a war as an ally of imperial Russia and why Haig could remain an enormously popular figure among servicemen (and later veterans), while a knowledge of the structure of the British military helps to contextualise his attitude towards different regiments.

Taking all three perspectives, the international, the national and the personal, together we may be able to start to understand the immensely complex and often contradictory period of history that is the First World War.  What has been encouraging in the past year of working with educators from outside of academe is the extent to which there is a willingness, even an eagerness, to engage with this narrative complexity rather than resort to the crude caricatures that seem to be informing the political debate.  On one level, Gove and Hunt, from their oppositional perspectives, have done a huge disservice to the centenary commemorations by their insistence on reducing the debate to a question of party politics and attempting to divide those researching the subject into camps that fit with their stereotyped ideas. But at least in creating the debate they have made some space for more nuanced discussion among educators and the much maligned Great British Public, a discussion many on both sides seem to want to engage in.

Finally, a brief thought on the word ‘myth’ which has been bandied about pretty freely in a lot of these discussions.  Both sides seem to take the word to mean something equivalent to ‘fiction’ or even ‘a lie’.  Yet, as Samuel Hynes points out, a myth is ‘not a falsification of reality, but an imaginative version of it, the story … that has evolved, and come to be accepted as true.’ (A War Imagined, ix).  So the myths may be challenged, but they are worth studying too, for what they tell us about the historic societies in which they were developed and came to represent truth.  Even if that does mean showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom.

Peaky Blinders and the Ubiquity of Poetry

Peaky Blinders gang in Stanley DockA quick disclaimer to begin with.  I do not propose to get involved in the debate over the accuracy of the Brummie accent in Peaky Blinders, the stylish interwar gangland drama broadcast on BBC2 earlier this month, that exercised a number of tweeters.  As someone whose accent hovers around the oddly mid-Atlantic, and has, mortifyingly, once been compared to that of Lloyd Grossman, I am in no position to make any comment on anyone’s accent. Nor is this post is not going to be, strictly speaking, a historical critique of the drama.  I am not a historian of crime and that sort of critique has been done already by those who are, notably Heather Shore in this blog post.

That being said, as a historian of the First World War, I was always going to be interested in a drama set in the war’s immediate aftermath, and there were an unsurprising number of references to the conflict.  The only one I took real issue with was the incitement to strike in the first episode, where men’s war service was used as a reason for striking.  Now, the injustices of the failure to find a land fit for heroes on demobilization was certainly a cause of labour unrest in the 1920s. What was less convincing was the purported date, 1919.  I find it hard to imagine that a significant number of working-class men had been demobilized, rehired and were already prepared to strike at that date.  More plausibly these men would have been on the verge of riot in a camp in France, chafing at the delays in demobilization.

Such quibbles aside, Peaky Blinders wore its war context relatively lightly.  There was the inevitable victim of shell shock, although shooting such a man with pig’s brains at close range is a form of aversion therapy is a treatment I have yet to come across in the medical literature.  The references to the role of women, most obviously in the form of the redoubtable Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) as the mainstay of the family business in wartime, were nicely done.  And it was interesting to note that the inevitable flashbacks to war experience were set in the tunnels, a trope of war that seems to be increasingly popular at the moment, as if Paul Fussell’s metaphor of the trogolodyte world can only now be properly understood if represented literally.  (Something similar seems to be happening with facial disfigurement, which appears to be overtaking shell shock as the metaphoric wound of the war.)

But it was only in the final episode that I felt I was being beaten about the head by the fact that this was a post-war drama and that war experience was at the heart of character’s attitudes and actions.  That it should be so is no surprise.  This was the episode where the Peaky Blinders, under the command of their wartime leader, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), went into defensive battle against Billy Kimber (the fantastically spivvy  Charlie Creed-Miles) armed with that key weapon of First World War battles (at least in the popular imagination), a machine gun.  The references were inevitable.

What interested me, however, was that extent to which the images of the battle referenced war poetry as much as military history.  This started early on, when Aunt Polly told Grace (Annabelle Wallis), that Tommy had thrown his medals into the cut.  Siegfried Sassoon allegedly throwing his MC into the Mersey is the obvious precedent.  This is followed by Tommy’s extended meditation on living in the present in the moments before he and his comrades going into battle, a meditation intercut not with the earlier images of the fighting in the tunnels of France that made up his flashbacks, but memories of making love to Grace the night before.  As I watched I found myself quoting from Alan Seeger’s ‘I Have a Rendevous with Death’:

God knows ’twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear…

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.[i]

Then there is Ada Shelby’s appearance, in widow’s weeds and pushing her infant son in a pram (an extraordinary image that I want to think about further in terms of what it says about domesticity and respectability), bringing to mind ‘the pallor of girls’ brows’ that was, for Wilfred Owen, the pall of young men dying in battle.  And finally, in the culminating moment of battle, when Tommy Shelby single-handedly kills Billy Kimber, I thought I saw a look of recognition pass across Murphy’s. By this time I was so attuned to potential poetic references that all I could think was ‘Oh, Strange Meeting, of course’.

Now, I have no way of knowing if Murphy read any Wilfred Owen when researching the part of Tommy Shelby, or if the director Otto Bathurst is familiar with ‘I Have a Rendevous with Death’, not one of the better-known poems of the war, though it should be.  My associations may simply be an over-sensitivity on my part to any poetic reference in relation to the war, an unfortunate aftereffect of studying the war and its culture for too long.  But the fact that the references are there, even only subconsciously, tells me something about the power of these poems to speak down the generations in their representations of an emotional truth about war, violence and its aftermath.  Dramatically, this is how our culture understands the war and its aftermath, the images that it associates with this bit of history.

This is a fact that those of us who argue that there is far more to the war than ‘the mud, the blood, the endless poetry’ must come to terms with in our attempts to convey what else history has to tell us about the First World War.  That there are emotional as well as historic truths to be acknowledged.  The continued power of war poetry is that it taps into the sense of being ‘of all time’, speaking as powerfully to us today as it did to those who read it when it was first composed and published.  This does not make it the only narrative of the war, but it does make it a significant one.  And if we stay attuned to these references, in whatever unlikely scenario they pop up, not only will we be able learn more about the place of the First World War within our cultural heritage, but we may also have an excuse to quote some very moving and beautiful poetry.


[i] Alan Seeger, ‘I have a rendezvous with death’, http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19396, last accessed 28/10/2013, 15-24.