'The report on her transfer was shell shock': a study of the psychological disorders of nurses and female Voluntary Aid Detachments who served alongside the British and Allied Expeditionary Forces during the First World War, 1914-1918
Poynter, D. J. (2008) 'The report on her transfer was shell shock': a study of the psychological disorders of nurses and female Voluntary Aid Detachments who served alongside the British and Allied Expeditionary Forces during the First World War, 1914-1918. Doctoral thesis. The University of Northampton.
Shell Shock, described as the ‘emblematic psychiatric disorder’ of the First World War has long been synonymous with its soldiers. Its association with close proximity to exploding shells and thus the front lines, leading to the various symptoms of ‘shock’, has both facilitated and ensured its existence throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries as a masculine affliction. Of the many shell shock studies that have been produced over the last few decades all have focused purely on the experience of the male combatant, predominantly because of this long held preoccupation with ‘front-line’ warfare and its consequences apparently being the preserve of men. Despite the prolonged interest and analysis of shell shock by medical and social historians along with a significant amount of work by feminist and, more recently, revisionist historians, detailing the involvement of women in the First World War, there is stHl no comprehensive study of the psychological problems encountered and suffered by the women who served alongside the British Expeditionary Forces (BEE). However, this study of the roles and duties of a specific group of women, namely nurses, voluntary aid detachments, and ambulance drivers, reveals they frequently endured a variety of traumatic experiences, involving injuries and fatalities, through the vicarious witnessing and dealing with horrific sights and sounds, all compounded by extremes of conditions and privations. Many, if not all, of these factors were given as antecedents for war neurosis in soldiers. Yet, while the nurse has been idolised for her role in the Great War, her experience of psychological ‘breakdown’ has not been examined. This thesis, through the analysis of professional medical literature, of medical case notes, personal testimonies, diaries and autobiographies, is a contribution to the areas of women’s history, medical history and, more specifically, to the history of psychological war trauma. Following a review of the literature in chapter one, chapter two is a re-examination of the proximity of nurses to the fighting zones and therefore of their exposure to danger. Chapter three analyses the nurses’ experience and subsequent symptoms of war trauma, including, importantly, how contemporary medical authorities understood the disorder, and then cared for and managed their female sufferers. These two chapters fundamentally argue that the notion of war-induced traumatic neurosis being the preserve of men is essentially pretence, and that this ‘focus’ on male sufferers means the history of the condition is incomplete. Chapter four essentially examines the issues of repatriation faced by these nurses, specifically examining the evolution of war disability pensions process of which they were excluded until 1920. It also looks at how the nurse, as female war veteran, coped with the consequences of her war experience. In conclusion, this thesis asserts that these nurses did indeed suffer psychologically for their involvement in this war and not because their symptoms and disorders ‘resembled’ those experienced by men, but were in fact, indistinguishable to the extent that some nurses were classed as ‘shellshocked’