100 Years Since The Guns Stopped Firing, Britain Still Suffers From Shell Shock

A century gone, but not forgotten.
PA Wire/PA Images

It’s been 100 years since the armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed, but for thousands of people the First World War didn’t end on the 11th hour of the 11th day in 1918 – the trauma stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

Millions of soldiers returned home in the weeks, months and years after the guns stop firing. Though many rebuilt their lives, their experiences changed them and their families irrevocably, and the effects are still being felt today.

Suzie Grogan, author of Shellshocked Britain, was inspired to write a book about the psychological impact of war when she discovered a Times newspaper clipping about her great-uncle, Alfred Hardiman. He had served in the war and had murdered his girlfriend, before killing himself, in 1922.

In the newspaper report, which detailed the inquest into the deaths, Grogan discovered her grandmother had witnessed the incident and had given evidence – something she kept secret from her family all of her life.

“They say you die twice, once when you take your last breath, and the second when someone mentions your name for the last time.”

The Times described Hardiman as suffering from “air raid shock”, similar to what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and reported that Hardiman had acted “whilst of unsound mind”.

“They didn’t even have the words to express how they felt, they had no way to admit their weakness, talk about how they felt or open up,” Grogan said of the men who returned from the frontline. “Because of that, they would turn to drink, abuse, or retreat inside themselves forever changed.”

They say you die twice, once when you take your last breath, and the second when someone mentions your name for the last time. All of the servicemen from the first world war, that raged between 1914-1918, have now passed away, but for families with ancestors who served it’s often not the tales of heroism they remember, but the scars they brought home with them.

By 1920, 65,000 ex-servicemen were drawing disability pensions for “neurasthenia” – an outdated term that was recorded for everything from depression and anxiety to heart palpitations – of which 9,000 were still in hospital. The amount of people who suffered without help will never be known.

According to Grogan, “well into the 1930s women were seeking help for their broken men, but there was no help.”

A report called the Committee of Enquiry into Shell Shock was published by parliament in 1922, which for the first time recognised that mental health issues could affect any soldier, from any background, whether they’d been celebrated for bravery previously or they’d only just made it to the frontlines.

The report found numerous symptoms of shell-shock – some men who had bayoneted others in the face developed tics of their own facial muscles, others suffered suffered severe stomach cramps. Others experienced terrifying nightmares.

Jackie Button, from Avebury, says when her grandfather, Alexander Seathforth, came home from the war “he suffered greatly from delusions that my grandmother was cheating on him, and that people where out to cheat and kill him.”

““The stigma attached to being mad in them days, you can imagine how he was treated, it shaped his whole outlook.””

- Jackie Button, granddaughter of ex-serviceman Alexander Seathforth

Seathforth had suffered three major injuries during the fighting, including losing several fingers, and had been forced to spend three days stuck in no-mans-land while his friends died around him.

As the years went by, Seathforth got worse and as depression set in he had to be admitted to an asylum, leaving the family nearly destitute. “The stigma attached to being mad in those days, you can imagine how he was treated, it shaped his whole outlook.”

Button’s grandmother was forced to split their six children up because they couldn’t care for them all. Two stayed with their parents, one went to maternal relatives. The other two were sent to farms near Dundee, where the children hated it so much they walked all the way home to Inverness. It took them three days.

Button’s mother stayed with her parents, where Seathforth would often tell his daughter gruesome tales from the trenches, something Button says “a child should never have to hear.”

At the other end of the country, Albert Hopkins from Gloucester had joined the local regiment. Outgoing and popular in his community at the start of the war, he was wounded twice, in the arm and the leg. But it wasn’t just his physical injuries that stayed with him, it was what he saw in the trenches. His grandson, Ian Hopkins, said: “The man I remember had no friends and kept himself to himself, didn’t have an opinion about anything and just got on with it.

Albert Hopkins served in the Gloucester Regiment
Albert Hopkins served in the Gloucester Regiment
David Hopkins

Hopkins added: “When he got back from the war he became a bus conductor and that was his only form of social life, before the war he had loads of friends, but when he came back he had none.”

According to Grogan’s research, one symptom of an entire nation experiencing loss, and with so few graves to grieve over, was an explosion in spiritualism, as people tried to find ways to contact the dead. There were 520 spiritualist societies by 1937. Large public seances would often attract thousands, with numerous smaller circles holding mediums on a regular basis.

While the notion of connecting with the dead through supernatural means may seem ridiculous in a modern context, it was a collective response to grief.

“Post-war survivor guilt is a significant issue and long-term PTSD symptoms. It is also hard for some to return to ‘normal’ life, having been so highly trained – they are on battle alert all the time, and support groups have told me that Guy Fawkes can cause significant issues.”

A report by the Howard League found prosecutions for violence were higher among veterans than the general prison population at 33% and 29% of all convictions respectively.

Numerous investigations have shown more British servicemen die to suicide than during combat, and the government has been criticised for not doing enough to care for them. It emerged earlier this year in a Johnston Press investigation that the Ministry of Defence does not keep information on veteran suicides, unlike countries like Canada and the US.

It is also estimated there are 13,000 homeless veterans on the streets of Britain.

Grogan says that if the nation faced a similar crisis of veteran mental health on a scale that was facing Britain in the years following the armistice, it’s not clear how the state would respond.

“Look at the people who came home from the Falklands and Iraq, they are still going through the struggle, the war is still with them and they struggle to open up about it,” she says.

“But when you compare those conflicts to the First World War, the numbers who served barely compare, millions died in the war and millions more came home all with their own struggle.

“If that happened now, we as a society still wouldn’t be able to cope.”


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