Soldiers Don't Go Mad: A Story of Brotherhood, Poetry, and Mental Illness During the First World War
“Glass writes a simple, honest, straightforward engrossing history of the epic scale of post-traumatic stress disorder during the First World War as studied in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh.”
What we today call post-traumatic stress disorder has existed for almost as long as individuals have struggled to survive. Charles Glass in Soldiers Don’t Go Mad argues that during the First World War, this hugely debilitating condition reached a new unimagined level of horror.
The causes of this enormous crisis come from the weapons used. “Industrial-scale weaponry deployed on a mass scale from August 1914 to November 1918 extracted a great toll in dead and wounded than in previous wars.”
“Millions of men faced high-velocity bullets, artillery with previously unimaginable explosive power, modern mortar shells, aerial bombardment, poison gas, and flamethrowers designed to burn them alive.” “Many of the broken men recorded their experiences in diaries, letters, illustrations, and poems.” Poetry became a coping mechanism.
Inevitable death replaced the idea of the empty chair, of the occasional death of the heroic honored individual in battle. Dying this way and the egregious wounds became enhanced by the military of the British still using outdated tactics from the Napoleonic wars with its single-shot musket. “It was not combat as much as slaughter.”
Survivors of the war could come home with unexplained “deafness, deaf-mutism, blindness, stammering, palsies, spasms, paraplegia, acute insomnia, and melancholia.” “Shell shock” took a huge toll on individuals and society for a generation afterward and, like the new ways of war, became an accepted part of our world to the present.
Trying to find a way to treat the victims of post-traumatic stress disorder began during World War I. The motivation was “to thrust shattered boys and men back into the conditions that caused their breakdowns” to prevent “depriving the fighting forces of the men needed to prosecute the war.”
After four years, Britain had no more manpower reserves as the remaining civilians could not meet the domestic and war needs. Soldiers had often enlisted to escape the common grueling labor and poverty of pre-war Britain.
Glass writes a simple, honest, straightforward engrossing history of the epic scale of post-traumatic stress disorder during the First World War as studied in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh. The narrative includes many individual case studies that make the war real.
Most senior British officers regarded this “shell shock” “as nothing other than malingering or cowardice.” This work covers many issues such as the treatment of officers as compared to the enlisted men. Views of British officers that this condition (post-traumatic stress disorder) merited punishment, not treatment, conflicted with physicians such as Major William H. Bryce who ran Craiglockhart Hospital “sought to demonstrate that sympathetic therapy worked better than harsh discipline.”
The British government established special hospitals for these victims, the most important being Craiglockhart. This institution stood in a beautiful setting far from any reminders of the continuing war and offered a varied social life.
At Craiglockhart, the word “asylum” was avoided, and it was well-served by physicians such as Bryce who explored this unknown territory of the mind with sympathy not derision for their patients. They had their share of setbacks, and they had far from sufficient numbers for the patients they tried to help. In 1917, the hospital lost Bryce and many of its physicians due to military interference. Ironically, many of the staff had studied in Germany.
The hospital, despite being grossly understaffed for the number of suffering soldiers still accomplished much. For the war as a whole, the staff did return 758 officers to duty, or almost half of the men treated. Many of their patients not returned to service were discharged or were sent to lighter duty.
Contrary to the title, this important work really only deals with the major work done at Craiglockhart. Doing a broader study on the same level would have required multiple volumes. Soldiers Don’t Go Mad has annotation.