Lessons learnt from World War One

Photo by  James Harris  on  Unsplash

Amid the destruction and chaos of WW1, and in response to the injuries sustained innovations in medicine and surgical techniques led to much that we take for granted today.

The need for cleanliness in caring for the wounded, the development of blood transfusions, the idea of triage ( the order of treatment dependant on need) are all common place now – if you go to Accident and Emergency Department you will see the Triage Nurse first who will prioritise your care. The National Blood Transfusion Service is now an integral part of our NHS. There was the development of the Thomas splint, for dealing with broken legs and of course the gas mask!

The words Shell Shock were used for those who were suffering from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - the verbal expression of trauma.

Those who declared themselves unable to cope, through shell or combat shock or devastating loss of comrades, were generally treated as malingerers rather than victims.

Few doctors, with the notable exception of W.H Rivers and Arthur Brock at Craiglockhart Hospital for victims of shell shock, explored the verbal expression of trauma. Before 1917, treatment for shell shock involved being forbidden to talk about the war. One officer, treated by Rivers at Craiglockhart, said ‘that it was obvious to him that memories such as those he had brought with him from the war could never be forgotten. Nevertheless, since he had been told by everyone that it was his duty to forget them he had done his utmost in this direction. It was felt that silence settled the mind, and that unpleasant memories could be replaced by means of pleasant activities such as walking and sports. An advertisement in the Pall Mall Gazette (8 May 1919) read: ‘So bury all those unpleasant memories in Dora’s waiting grave … and get your Austin Reed straw hat to signalise the event’ [DORA was the Defence of the Realm Act].

A poem by Cecil Lewis demonstrat1es this aspect of war and reminds us all of not only PTSD, but other mental health issues in society today:

War is never over

Though the treaties may be signed

The memories of the battles

Are forever in our minds

War is never over

So when you welcome heroes home

Remember in their minds they hold

Memories known to them alone

War is never over

All veterans know this well

Now other wars bring memories back

of their own eternal hell

War is never over

For I knew world war two

And I'll not forget the battles

Or the nightmares that ensue

War is never over

Those left home to wait know this

For many still are waiting

It was their farewell kiss

War is never over

Though we win the victory

Still in our minds the battles

No freedom is not free

Revd Debbie Hodge
Secretary for Healthcare Chaplaincy, Free Churches
Project Officer NHS Chaplaincy Project