Abby Algeier’s report on the podcast “Britain: The Psychology of War”

The BBC has a series of podcasts about World War I (aptly called “World War One”) that include episodes of different topics. I listened to the “Britain: The Psychology of War” episode that discusses why men volunteered to go to the front and what drove them to the edge.

The first thing Amanda Vickery and her guests Dan Todman and Michael Roper talk about is the drastic increase in men joining the army, from 100,000 at the beginning of the war to 100 million towards the end, 80,000 of whom had shell-shock. There was not much patriotism among young British men until after Britain joined World War I, and while there was a small rush to the recruitment offices beforehand, at the end of August 1914 men joined the army in droves.

One segment I found particularly relevant to our class occurred about 18 minutes, 41 seconds in. The speakers spoke about the 8 million letters per week sent home from the Western Front and how many of them contained shopping lists; the situation at the Front was very domestic, leading into an interesting topic: men in maternal roles. One speaker read aloud what a man named David wrote about a comrade who was hit by shells. He held him in his arms, and kissed him twice on his brow — once for the man’s mother, and once for himself. This immediately reminded me of the scene in All Quiet on the Western Front with Paul and Franz (we all know the one). There are many accounts of dying men crying out for their mothers, and some men wrote about the ground being their mother’s arms, which also called to mind All Quiet.

The topic moved to the influx of poetry by men about the war, made possible due to mass literacy. They delved further into poetry and gendered points of view about the war and patriotism before bringing in Joanna Bourke, the third guest, to discuss shell-shock.

Bourke explained that shell-shock as a term is similar to “soldier’s heart” from the American Civil War and PTSD from Vietnam. She states that shell-shock was a uniquely United Kingdom experience, but I disagree. Shell shock affected Allied and German powers alike — the speakers later remarked that other countries had shell-shocked soldiers too. The term itself originates from the theory that a shell exploding nearby released shockwaves that strongly affected the brain by shattering their nerves. Diagnoses determined whether men received pension, treatment, or were “shot at dawn.” Lower-ranked privates were considered womanish while higher-ranked. higher-class officers had anxiety disorders.

One audience member spoke about his grandfather, a doctor during WWI, who was traumatized by caring for soldiers, and he said something very profound: the war did not end in 1918. His grandfather’s children were affected by the trauma, too. The speakers noted that at first, discussion about the war, its effects, and shell-shock skyrocketed but fell off after some time. Children often wet the bed and had night terrors.

The speakers briefly spoke about male vs. female shell-shock. While women experienced identical symptoms, especially nurses, V.A.D.s, and ambulance drivers who saw destroyed men, they were largely ignored. This reminded me of Not So Quiet‘s…everything! Nellie knew her mother would think her hysterical, yet at the end of the novel, she lost her soul.

None of our novels were mentioned at all in this podcast, but I still recognized elements from All Quiet and Not So Quiet — even though the former was German, not British. It’s easy to separate the fictional war books from real-life events. The themes we discussed in class are real for men and women in WWI, and to me, this is absolutely mindblowing!

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