Review – Suzie Grogan “Shell Shocked Britain” (Pen & Sword History, 2014)

This is a disappointingly frustrating book. It is well-written and bounces along through a number of interesting topics in an engaging way, but it is misleading. The title is really the give-away. The author reassures us on one page that not everyone was traumatised by the experience of the First World War, yet gives the impression on another that indeed they were. Nowhere is this more clear than in her inclusion of the statement of Dr Peter Heinl: ‘Unless proof has been provided to the contrary, I regard anyone who has survived the war as having been traumatised in some way or another. Neither Heinl nor Grogan seemingly understand that it is inherent on the proposer to disprove the null hypothesis, not to presume it, without evidence, to be untrue until others prove it correct. Science isn’t done this way. Further, this statement denies those who experienced the Great War the dignity of having applied their coping skills and survived psychologically intact. As many did. The implied scorn of the attitudes of society of 100 years ago is based on 20-20 hindsight. You don’t do history like that.

There is heavy reliance on references from novels, the usual inclination towards the war poets whose supposed monopoly of truth is so rarely challenged, and psychoanalysis. Grogan’s style is notable for its absence of footnotes. Although there is a bibliography, there is little indication as to what statements are supported by what evidence. One suspects that a good proportion of that which is written is the author’s assertion rather than any research-based fact and goes through on the nod as a given based on the ‘fact’ that everyone nowadays knows that trauma is everywhere. Don’t they? As John Bourne and Bob Bushaway have noted:  ‘It is a modern conceit that soldiers must necessarily be traumatised by war’. (in G.R. Husbands, Joffrey’s War, p.20).

The book is also full of irritating errors. The British Army did not “identify and treat approximately 80,000 young men for shell-shock”.  That was the maximum total supposed in retrospect for all “nervous disorder” and we don’t know their ages. (Grogan never refers to Peter Leese’s conclusion that the true figure is 200,000 of over five million who served – the unspoken impression is that it is many more than that.). “Many”, it is asserted, had apparently “succumbed” to shell shock “within the first 12 months”. A contemporary report in fact suggested that by the end of 1914, 7 to 10 per cent of all officers and 3 to 4 per cent of other ranks had been sent home ‘suffering from the effects of nervous and mental shock, due to strain, stress and exhaustion’. (McPherson, ‘Medical Diseases of the War’ Vol Two p.9). The American Civil War ended in 1865, not 1875. Edmund Blunden’s surname is not spelled Blundon. The “bank balance hypothesis” of a finite amount of fortitude did not inspire forward psychiatry during the war – the notion first appears in the evidence of William Tyrrell in the 1922 “Shell-Shock” report. “50 per cent of all those killed had no grave”? No – 50% have a known grave, 25% of burials in graves are unknown, 25% were never recovered. One could go on.

Another review says that this book is a “perfect introduction to the subject” of shell shock. This reviewer does not believe it is. The area is complex – it requires a grasp of psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and military and social history to truly do justice to such a broad topic. Go read Peter Leese “Shell Shock”, or Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely “Shell Shock to PTSD”.

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