I came to Suzie Grogan’s work on ‘Shell Shocked Britain’ by way of her podcast on the National Archives website a while back. It was a completely absorbing, poignant and thought-provoking listen. It’s taken me a long time to actually get round to reading the book and I’m struck by how far we’ve come in those 5 years since the beginning of the centenary in 1914, when this book was published. Some of the observations in the book no longer seem new – which is not a criticism of the author, but more a reflection of the colossal amount of work that historians and writers like her have done to revise our opinions. The trope of the poet’s war is gradually being eroded as surely as Danny Boyle’s Pages of the Sea were rubbed out by the waves.
The thematic approach of the book reminds us of the well-worn inequities of the class system and the status of women during and after the war. These treatments are nuanced and richly illustrated - but the relatively unstudied effects of psychological damage on the next generation are particularly interesting. A 1918 Royal Society Arts lecture by Major Sir Robert Armstrong Jones focused on the need to ‘nurture and protect the country’s young’ as the generation who were the most susceptible to the after effects of a such a cataclysmic war – those who not only lost parents and economic security but were also forced to grow up well before their time and develop sensitivities towards grieving mothers that now seem painfully unfortunate considering their own needs and the pressure on them to remain cheerful. These issues were evidently given a great deal of thought but the paucity of effective psychological help ensured that the stiff upper lip remained the preferred early twentieth century solution. Grogan effectively sums up this incongruity: ‘In the face of such adult denial, what were the children to do?’
Spanish flu has also been covered in the centenary, often with a lasciviousness that says more about how disaster sells newspapers and movies than historical revision, but here again Grogan points out some of its lesser-known consequences, particularly the post-viral depression that blindsided those who felt they should be grateful to have survived.
One quote in particular haunts me from the book; as Zeppelins attack Hull, the thronged city’s population is ejected into open spaces to escape the raids. The description of wandering crowds of confused and terrified families has a ghastly ‘War of the Worlds’ resonance: ‘Parks were thrown open and they came to the fields. It is no exaggeration to say that there were thousands of people in and around the fields and houses…the dear little children – the cripples, the aged – oh my dear it must be seen to be realised.’ What a contrast between this and Henry Moore’s image from the next war of Londoners filling the underground as if they were playing a grotesque game of sardines.
Grogan’s own family history provides a potent suggestion of shell shock as a trauma unleashed on everyone; not just the soldiers, sailors and airman. Her great uncle, sent to a psychiatric hospital after witnessing the horror of a Gotha raid, and suffering subsequent periods of depression, murdered his ex-girlfriend and then killed himself ‘whilst of unsound mind’. This horrific episode was swept under the carpet with an understandable vigour. Grogan considers whether her family’s continuing vulnerability to depression was sown the day Alfred Hardiman saw Londoners mutilated by German bombs and asks why we ‘expect our grand and great grandparents to remain unaffected.’
I don’t think we do. Not anymore.
Shell Shocked Britain is available from Pen and Sword.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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