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Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War's Legacy for Britain's Mental Health Hardcover – 30 Oct 2014
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About the Author
Suzie Grogan is a London-born professional writer and researcher in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Suzie's first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety was published in 2012 and she also writes for a wide variety of national magazines. Suzie also runs a popular blog, 'No wriggling out of writing', and presents a local radio show on literature, called 'Talking Books'.
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There have many books on the subject but are often written for a specialist audience. The strength of this book is that it is not written by a military historian or mental health specialist but a sensitive person who writes in an engaging way. She also consulted the international expert on inter-generational trauma, Peter Heinl, whom I have met and admire, and this gives her book a sense of being soundly based.
The book starts with a short history of shell shock. As it explains, the symptoms did not go away with the peace. The war created a huge national debt and the government responded by the ‘Geddes Axe’, cutting government expenditure and causing much hardship-which sounds familiar. The next chapter describes the treatments used to try and cure shell shock. Even those treatments considered the most effective seem little more than a placebo effect. The physiological methods attracted the money and perhaps we see the echoes of that today with the NHS giving primacy to the ‘medical model’ and cognitive processes and the not the relational methods despite the evidence base. I also learnt some interesting facts in passing, such as the origin of the term ‘basket case’.
Despite covering events almost a century ago, many of the issues are still around. It highlighted for me that many of our understandings are still quite new. A psychotherapist with whom I worked, started life as nurse in hospital where an acclaimed psychiatrist used deep sleep therapy which involving drugging patients for days or weeks. He disdained psychotherapy but the theories which informed his work had little or no scientific basis. His work was why she left nursing and became a psychotherapist! Sleep therapy. I am told, was still being used in Somerset in the 1980s.
The book is interesting in that it covers a number of areas. It describes the effects of the air raids-a novel form of attack which caused more disruption than damage but the psychological effects were much more marked. It discusses the effect of the war on gender balance and the changing mores of the time. The last year of the war saw the influenza epidemic which caused thousands of deaths and against which they had almost no remedies. When one combines this with the austerity programme, we can see that Britain in the post war years was a tough place to live, even for those who were psychologically healthy.
The effect of the war on children receives interesting treatment and Heinl’s insights are valuable. Methods of treating children were beginning to change but what did, largely, remain across the spectrum of opinion was the concept that behavioural or emotional patterns were inherited and could be passed on. This underlay much of the racial stereotyping and indeed, class stereotyping. In education, Sir Cyril Burt worried about children inheriting weakness from a father who had been shell shocked. Burt’s assertion on ‘scientific evidence’ that 80% of intelligence was inherited, was still being taught to young teachers like me in the 1960s. It was later found that he had forged his results to suit his theories but no one dared to challenge him.
One fascinating section deals with Spiritualism which grew in popularity after the war. This led to the Archbishop of Canterbury appointing the Bishop of Bath and Wells to chair a commission to investigate the subject. The majority report, though heavily qualified, was quite supportive of Spiritualism and said that the church had neglected the ‘communion of saints’. Archbishop Lang then suppressed it, although it was ‘leaked’ after the war. The President of the Royal Society (of Scientists), Sir Oliver Lodge, lost a son but became convinced that he was receiving messages from him. Many assumed that grief blunted his, and many of other people’s critical faculties and that the messages from mediums were the result of fraud. If one believes that such contact is, a priori, impossible then when even good evidence is presented, there are few other explanations other than fraud or delusion. However, if one reads the last section of his book Raymond ( which Suzie Grogan mentions) and the discussion about how we know what we think we do, credulity is not an likely explanation.
Even today I know of scientists who believe in survival but did not ‘come out’ until they retired because of the other scientists who would not take them seriously-although there is evidence of a greater tolerance today. Survey and after survey shows that many people, probably a majority, still take the spiritual world as possible or actually real. There is, perhaps, a class divide here which is reflected in the different attitudes to shell shock described, in the book, in the way officers and other ranks were regarded or treated. Last year an old lady in Somerset told me that her mother was a medium in the 1930s but when she held a séance, the daughter’s role was to look out for a policeman. Some people informed on them but they needed to be caught ‘in the act’ for a prosecution to succeed. In certain localities, Spiritualists were harassed by police and magistrates. Much is written about fraud but most people, however, probably only encountered mediums in Spiritualist churches where there was no financial transaction. In contrast middle class people could arrange séances and pay mediums without fear of harassment. Spiritualism declined after the war like all the other churches, but did present a theological challenge to the churches. Firstly, they claimed empirical evidence or survival. Secondly, a person’s condition in the next world, they claimed, was determined by behaviour, not belief in any creed, and like Purgatory, a person could gradually be purified, so no eternal damnation. It is beyond the period of this book but Spiritualist concepts played a part in the bottom spiritual movement of the 1960s-often called the ‘New Age Movement’.
I found discussion of the guilt and shame that some felt by some victims of shell shock to be quite thought provoking. I am helping to arrange a conference on sexual abuse and one of the speakers will be dealing with the issue of women who have been raped and who feel guilty. Sadly, rape has been used as a weapon in the Balkan wars, Africa and in the Middle East. From what I have seen of the presentation, there is a neurological explanation around the effects which was never available to the psychiatrists of an earlier generation and may be of relevance to shell shock. I am sure that the damage of war was often compounded by the shell shock victims because of the way they had been taught to think. Suzie touches on this in the section on the ‘heroic ideal’. The whole issue of war damaged minds is still very much with us but we do not have the excuse of ignorance which, perhaps, the earlier generations did.
The end of the book deals with questions which are still with us as the UK finishes another war and soldiers may disappear from the headlines but the causalities will still be there. We must remember them in reality and not just on one Sunday in November. Finding the answers to the questions is the responsibility of all of us.
This short volume traces the development of mental health care for veterans through the 20th century, but it also makes a convincing case for a shell-shocked nation, reeling after WWI, unable to come to terms with what it had experienced. Grogan catalogues the horrors: trench warfare, bombing raids on civilians, bereavement (when up to 50% of those killed had no grave), post-war unemployment, homelessness, family and marital breakdown and finally an epidemic of Spanish flu which killed more people than the Black Death.
This clear, accessible account will appeal to the general reader with an interest in mental health or social history. Grogan covers a range of related topics – Suffragettes, the “superfluous woman”, the popularity of spiritualism – and also includes an account of how her own family was affected by the return of a shell-shocked great-uncle who broke down completely and committed both murder and suicide.
Grogan’s measured, almost elegiac tone does not disguise that this is a book written with conviction and quiet passion. Not a word is wasted. "Shell Shocked Britain" is an important book about an important subject and sadly necessary at a time when a US war veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes.
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