Haunted by dreams of the trenches

BBC History Magazine - - Armistice 100 Years - by Fiona Reid Fiona Reidd of New­man Univer­sity is the au­thor of Medicine in First World War Europe: Sol­diers, Medics, Paci­fists (Blooms­bury, 2017)

Through­out the First World War, men on the west­ern front lived and fought in dark, muddy trenches. Af­ter en­dur­ing the worst of the phys­i­cal land­scape, many then sought refuge in its grandeur and beauty. Af­ter the war, 14 Lake Dis­trict sum­mits were do­nated to the Na­tional Trust as a me­mo­rial, while climber-poet Ge­of­frey Winthrop Young ded­i­cated the space to com­rades united in “the fel­low­ship of hill and wind and sun­shine”. The Zone Rouge, stretch­ing across north-east­ern France, is a very dif­fer­ent me­mo­rial to war. Af­ter the ar­mistice, the area was de­clared un­fit for hu­man habi­ta­tion on ac­count of the dev­as­ta­tion. Even to­day, there are ar­eas scarred by un­ex­ploded bombs and am­mu­ni­tion dumps, and the soil and wa­ter is still poi­soned by chem­i­cal waste.

These con­trast­ing lega­cies re­flect the range of hu­man re­ac­tions to years of in­dus­trial war­fare. Ap­prox­i­mately 8 mil­lion men were killed in the First World War, and about 20 mil­lion were wounded, some of them many times. Homes, busi­nesses, farms and whole com­mu­ni­ties were oblit­er­ated. In Bri­tain more than 80,000 were di­ag­nosed with shell shock – a num­ber that grew due to the last­ing ef­fects of com­bat trauma There were refugee crises and epi­demics, and in east­ern Europe there was mass star­va­tion as the old em­pires dis­in­te­grated. On top of this, 20–50 mil­lion peo­ple died world­wide as a re­sult of the 1918–19 in­fluenza pan­demic, while many men were pre­ma­turely aged or de­bil­i­tated af­ter years of war ser­vice.

Suf­fer­ing and stigma

Phys­i­cal in­juries sus­tained in the con­flict were of­ten life-chang­ing and trau­matic. Young men re­turned home blind, dis­fig­ured or with miss­ing limbs. “What a use­less in­di­vid­ual I am and how hard it comes to me to know that at my age I am sim­ply an old crock,” wrote a fa­cially wounded sol­dier to his mother at the end of the war.

There were psy­cho­log­i­cal scars, too. In Bri­tain alone more than 80,000 men were di­ag­nosed with shell shock, and the numbers grew af­ter the ar­mistice due to the long-term ef­fects of com­bat trauma. “I can­not for­get it, no mat­ter how much I sky­lark,” con­fessed one sol­dier to his doc­tor. The stigma of men­tal wounds com­pounded these feel­ings. Be­ing treated for shell shock “made me feel like a bloomin’ kid” com­plained one sol­dier, echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of many. The war also had a psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact on the fam­i­lies who lost sons, broth­ers, hus­bands and friends, or (more of­ten) had to ac­com­mo­date the re­turn of men ir­re­vo­ca­bly trans­formed by war. Even those who suf­fered no loss had spent years in fear, wor­ried that friends and rel­a­tives could be killed or maimed.

How did this af­fect the chil­dren of those men and women whose lives had been so dam­aged by the war? In her 2008 book Al­fred and Emily, Doris Less­ing cre­ated a Bri­tain that had not en­dured the First World War. It was a re­sponse to her own fam­ily history, which was dom­i­nated by her fa­ther’s war wound, and pro­vides a glimpse into the pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal costs of the con­flict. It was not sim­ply that her fa­ther had lost his leg, but that he was un­able to for­get the war. For the rest of his life he slept badly, dis­turbed by dreams of the trenches. At the break­fast ta­ble, Less­ing writes, he would an­nounce that he had been dream­ing of “Tommy”, “Johnny” or “Bob” again.

In Ger­many, the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact of the war on so­ci­ety as a whole was recog­nised most fully in the early years of the Weimar Repub­lic, when the So­cial Democrats tried to cre­ate a Volksstaat (‘peo­ple’s state’) in which sol­diers and civil­ians were united by their col­lec­tive war ex­pe­ri­ence. Yet vet­er­ans were hos­tile to a wel­fare sys­tem that con­flated their needs with those of women, and in­sisted on the pri­macy of the com­bat­ant’s suf­fer­ing. This trauma was made man­i­fest in ex­pres­sion­ist film, in sur­re­al­ist art and in the short-lived but po­tent Dada move­ment. All were ways of declar­ing that the world no longer made sense.

The First World War was not, as many con­tem­po­raries hoped, the war to end all wars. Yet the sur­vivors were not just bat­tle-scarred and bro­ken. Re­turn­ing sol­diers – most of whom were young men – wanted to live their lives to the full. The psy­cho­log­i­cal cost of the con­flict was a huge bur­den for them. At the same time, many were de­ter­mined to en­joy what­ever “hill and wind and sun­shine” they could find.

An in­jured sol­dier uses belt crutches in Septem­ber 1917. The phys­i­cal in­juries sus­tained were of­ten life- chang­ing

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