Trauma & Shellshock

When questioned about her experiences, she became quite emotional and refused to tell about them but admitted that she used to have nightmares about them and dreaded going to sleep. In my experience, this reaction is diagnostic of those cases in which the stress of war has played an active part in inducing mental breakdown.
Medical notes from Mary Cleverley’s records, held in the National Archives

The picture came back to me of myself standing alone in a newly created circle of hell during the ’emergency’ of March 22nd 1918, gazing half hypnotized at the dishevelled beds, the stretchers on the floor, the scattered boots and piles of muddy clothing, the brown blankets turned back from smashed limbs bound to splints by filthy bloodstained bandages. Beneath each stinking wad of sodden wool and gauze an obscene horror waited for me and all the equipment that I had for attacking it in this ex-medical ward was one pair of forceps standing in a potted meat glass half full of methylated spirit.
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, 1933

Before World War One, women essentially had one job, to be a wife and mother. They had no voice, couldn’t vote and couldn’t speak out if they were facing domestic abuse or suffered sexual assault. Women weren’t taken seriously even when during the war they did the men’s jobs.

Young women had to struggle through many issues and uncertainties. One of these unknowns was whether they would ever again see the men who had gone off to war. Their fathers, husbands, brothers and friends left, and nobody knew if they would ever return.

Shellshock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, was very common among men who had been to war. But nobody seemed to remember that women had been affected too. Nurses working on the front lines saw terrible things. Women at home had their houses destroyed and workers and ammunition factories often had life-changing injuries. They may have become depressed after the war if they had to stop working and suddenly become housewives again, maybe feeling irrelevant or invisible, like they suddenly don’t matter anymore.

Historian and therapist Denise Poynter talks to Daisy and Amelie about her search for elusive records about women who suffered from trauma and shell shock in World War One. Denise’s work shines a light on women’s experiences of war trauma, long ignored by historians until fairly recently. Denise argues that women working near the front as nurses and VADs showed the same symptoms as men when it came to shell shock and trauma. Her discovery in the archives of a doctor’s note reading: “the report on her transfer was shell shock”, became the title of her thesis into the subject.

Read the transcript.

🌸 Read this blog post about women and trauma: World War One’s Forgotten Female Shell Shock Victims by Hannah Groch-Begley, research fellow at Media Matters for America

🌸 Create a mind map of ideas around mental health and how women were affected in the First World War.

🌸 Discuss what the consequences might be of not including women’s experiences when it comes to medicine or history?

Mind Maps

Students from Hove Park School in Brighton discussed what might have contributed to Poppy’s during the War, drawing up mind maps (above). Freedoms such as going out to work and, for some, earning their own money for the first time, gave women a sense of independence. But students realised that the gruelling four years of war took its toll with loneliness, unequal pay and family loss all having a major impact on their mental health.

Mind map exploring women's mental health in WW1


Mind map exploring women's mental health in WW1


Mind map exploring women's mental health in WW1