Christie, and Virginia Wolf all feature central characters with shell shock, and Dorothy Sayers created Lord Peter Wimsey, a fit and elegant aristocratic detective, who appeared in a series of immensely successful detective thrillers.
He repeatedly suffers from haunting ‘flashbacks’ to wartime horrors. He is described in Whose Body? (1923) as having been ‘dreadfully bad in 1918’, and, the reader is informed, ‘we can’t expect him to forget all about a great war in a year or two’.
Ian Carmichael as the Dorothy L Sayers character Lord Peter Wimsey – who suffered from shell shock following the First World War.
Lord Wimsey relies on his valet, Bunter, to sort him out. It turns out that Bunter had been his sergeant in the war and knew how to deal with the problem.
In 1939, official figures showed that there were still 35,000 ex-servicemen receiving war disability pensions for neurasthenia and mental conditions. But by then the Army had cut back its medical services and many of the lessons painfully learned in the Great War about dealing with war trauma had been forgotten. The link established between the RAMC and the world of psychiatry had been broken.
Dr Charles Myers, one of the pioneers of the treatment of shell shock in the First World War, felt compelled to write a book containing some of the key factors in treating wartime psycho-neuroses in order to prevent the Army Medical Corps from ‘repeating the same mistakes’ as in 1914- 1918. When the Second World War began, the military medical services had to relearn what had been lost over the previous 20 years.
What today is called ‘military psychiatry’ goes hand in hand with more general developments in clinical psychiatry. War provides a great learning opportunity for medical practitioners, as with so many other fields.
Studying how the human body and mind respond to the extreme wounds of war has given a great boost to medical science in the last hundred years. War can open up a sort of laboratory into the mind.
Hopefully, Britain has now come to the end of a decade and more of continuous conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much more is now understood about what is today classed as ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD). Let us hope that this will not all be forgotten, as after 1918, in the years ahead.
Taylor Downing’s book Breakdown: the crisis of shell shock on the Somme, 1916 is available as an Abacus paperback.