After-effects of shell-shock

DS&S shell-shock article 26-7-1919

The effect of shell-shock (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was a consideration accepted by both judge and jury when Luton Peace Day riot cases were heard at Beds Assizes in October 1919. The jury found one defendant not guilty in the only case in which medical evidence was given, and the judge gave a non-custodial sentence of binding over to keep the peace in a second case in which the jury found a man guilty but his defence lawyer's argument that shell shock also applied in that case was accepted.

The British Library says that it was estimated that around 325,000 British soldiers suffered from shell-shock. It was a condition that only began to receive serious attention at the end of the Great War, but it was a condition that the Luton branch of the DS&S drew attention to in the first post-riot edition of its Journal on July 26th, 1919. Written by a Dr Laughton Scott and based on his experiences of treating shell-shock, it read:

“It is rather distressing that, even in these days, no better counsel is generally afforded to those who suffer from the after-effects of what is called 'shell-shock' than to avoid the papers and to forget what they have been through. For there is no advice better calculated to perpetuate the string of disagreeable symptoms which are the aftermath of the intense overstrain of war.

“Utterly mistaken as the advice is found to be, it contains a vague recognition of the part played by memories in these disorders. The concussion itself is generally a thing of slight importance, and merely furnishes the climax to a cumulative series of hideous experiences that have left their mark on the mind.

“Agonising memories remain in a large measure responsible for restless and unrefreshing sleep nightmares, vague depressions and a general sense of weariness and incapacity; not will the effect end till the mind has dealt effectively with its sorrows.

“Country life and outdoor occupation have their place in the treatment of these nervous troubles, but it is to be feared think that no more is necessary. Nothing very abstruse is necessary; but if the road to recovery is to be reasonably short and certain, one simple and psychological truth must be grasped, namely that expression and not repression of memories will alone 'cleanse the bosom of the perilous stuff that weighs upon the soul'.

“Past terrors constitute, as it were, a mental wound; dangers in every form, horrible sights, the long struggle to keep up appearances in the face of death, the foul discomfort and barren misery of warfare are stored up to form a source of irritation which is not readily assuaged.

“One has only to notice how sufferers avoid all reminders of the past to realise how acutely conscious they are of the sensitiveness of their mental wounds, which are so ready to ache anew at the prod of any chance of circumstance which touches the memories of the past.

“Repression is not the treatment of a physical wound. One the contrary, the poison must be allowed to drain away; and the knife is needed before the lancinating sore becomes a healthy scar. And in practice it is found that the analogy applies to the processes of the mind.

“It is an essential thing for a man, so far from thrusting the past into the recesses of the mind, to re-discover his war experiences and to bring them to the light of day. The instinct, strangely enough, is all the other way – probably because at first the process is painful. But perseverance is to be used, and before long it will be found that dreams disappear and other symptoms ameliorate.

“It is too short of marvellous in many cases how effectual this treatment is. The writer recently saw a Mons veteran whose condition was so alarming that it actually contemplated to put him into an asylum. He suffered from the profoundest depression and sat listlessly by himself all day, resenting interference; while at night he complained of terrifying dreams, and was often found wandering in his sleep far from home. This condition had gradually developed since the early days of the war.

"It was discovered that in the retreat he had seen a little girl murdered by a German. It chanced that the child bore a resemblance to a child of his own and, though he avenged the death, he could never escape the haunting memory. Misdirected by instinct, as so often happens, he had kept the affair entirely to himself, and the symptoms of a psychological auto-intoxication had set in.

“When careful questioning had dragged from him the well-guarded secret, the trouble lifted life clouds before the wind. In a few weeks he was perfectly well, and has since led an active and happy life.

“Such dramatic effects are naturally rare, but when they do occur they afford a startling demonstration of the mechanism of cure. One finds that after sympathetic recapitulation of war experiences not one man in ten fails to be relieved of his dreams, while considerable general improvement takes place.

“The necessary condition is that the process be repeated regularly – at first for a few minutes a day and later for as much as half an hour. It is not necessary for a doctor to be the recipient of such confidences; a trusted friend will do well enough.”