Discussions: Professor Jay Winter

Professor Jay Winter is a well-known author of many books relating to World War I. The interview began with him discussing the changes in war from the 19th century to the 20th century.

Rebecca and Laura had a cavalry sword which represented the 19th century where war was fought on horses and was over in a fairly short time once the cavalry charged into enemy lines. They also had small pieces of shrapnel representing the industrialized version of war in the 20th century. You could no longer charge through enemy lines and over 80% of death and wounds in World War I was related to artillery.

Men returning home with damage to their faces knew they would be scary to little children and others in society, even their own mates from battle. In France, some of them actually bought their own beaches so they could be there without frightening others. They often thought of themselves as pariahs despite the many dental and medical surgeons who had operated on them with skin grafts and so on. Veterans had the power of being brothers but if you were less injured than your mate, you could also feel guilty and think, that could have been me.

Despite the physical injuries, their records rarely showed the psychological injuries they would also have been feeling. Jay says 50% of those who went to war would be dead or wounded by the end of war. But everyone would come back home with some form of disability. For many, it would be the gas attacks and the long shadow that would have over the returning soldiers. Gas wasn’t a killer, instead it was a torturer.

Those who suffered from gas wounds were given pensions but these were gradually diminished and the soldiers were then below the poverty line. Physical wounds were best off with pensions, followed by gas wounds and the worst off were those that were shellshocked. If you died from TB, it couldn’t be assumed it was from war as this was a disease found in the normal population at the time.

I found it interesting that in France, if a soldier declared his wounds were war related, he automatically got a pension – it was up to the state to disprove it – pensions were allocated by the veterans themselves, while in other countries, the soldier had to prove the wound was from war.

Families also suffered from war  – mainly relating to money. Women were often the ones who had to write reams of letters regarding their husband needing a pension and then having to keep proving it every time the finance committee did a check. But the returning soldiers also would often take out their frustration and depression on the women and children of their family through the use of violence. The children wouldn’t see any physical damage to their father, but they would feel the violence from the psychological damage.

Shellshock was used in describing conditions of some men returning from war but what is it?

Myers, an anthropologist and physician, used the term when describing concussion in the inner ear or brain caused by heavy artillery fire or shelling. Being buried alive then rescued could show no physiological damage but it would have psychological damage – the treatment was unknown at the time, sometimes men were told they were cowards if they didn’t return to the front line with their mates. This was often seen as a stigma to your manhood if you suffered from shellshock.

Soldiers at both Gallipoli and the western front had no way to protect themselves from the violence of artillery firing and the resulting bursting of shells over or in their trenches. This violence was happening 24 hours a day the whole time your unit was in the trenches. These barrages came from 10 to 50 miles away so you had no control over them.

A person who was nervy and shaking – could he be a true soldier, a man, a brave person, an ANZAC? This is what the shellshocked soldier had to prove.

It wasn’t until after World War II that neural conditions were accepted as being part of combat.

I liked the discussion at the end where the children of shellshocked World War I veterans are now looking into the Great War. Also that the stories of war are those behind the shutters and in the family homes rather than those on the ANZAC Day parades.

Mention was made of Pat Barker who has written “Regeneration” trilogy about WWI and especially shellshocked patients.

Shellshock could be entire paralysis of limbs where a trigger word like bomb would cause total panic, others had uncontrollable movement of limbs, yet others who couldn’t walk straight tried to control their limbs and ended up similar to Charlie Chaplin but still looking awkward.

Two types of disability after war – immediate – can be seen visually like loss of limb etc, blindness, deafness and the second one -traumatic memory – appeared many years after the war was over, was also seen in many Holocaust survivors.

Many of the treatments for shellshock back in the 1920’s  now seem absurd like warm baths, knitting lessons. There was a difference in terminology – officers had nervous breakdowns while the men in other ranks had paralysis. The worst treatment was electro convulsive shock treatment. Some men were given no treatment at all and just locked away in a hospital or institution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *