From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Historian Corner: Professor Joanna Bourk on WW1's Legacy of Pain and Fear
In December 7th's WW1 Centennial News Podcast, Episode 100, host Theo Mayer spoke with Professor Joanna Bourk about the steep impact of military wounds, both mental and physical, on both the men and women who carried them and society at large. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: Because of the sheer number of individuals that served in the war effort, it's not surprising that the war had widespread and lingering effects of the psychological health of individuals and nations alike in the following years. Millions served in World War I, large segments of entire generations, and it's now evermore broadly accepted that nearly all combatants in war, even if they're not physically wounded, suffer trauma from the experience. To help us unpack the lasting marks of war, wounds, pain, and fear, we're joined by Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of several books including: Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain, and the Great War, and also Deep Violence: Military Violence, War Play, and the Social History of Weapons. Joanna, welcome to the podcast.
Joanna Bourke: Hi, it's really great being here, Theo.
Theo Mayer: So Joanna, one of your books is titled, Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain, and the Great War. That's pretty intriguing. Can you briefly outline that context for us?
Joanna Bourke: It is actually a book about literal dismemberment as well as figurative and psychological dismemberment. So what I wanted to do in that book was to actually ask: How did British and American men and women actually experience war? So I was interested in the effect of witnessing acts of extreme cruelty, which of course left deep scars, but also of inflicting cruelty on other people. Every day of the war, 5600 men were killed. In Britain, there's major problems with physical dismemberment. 41,000 men had their limbs amputated during the war, 272,000 had other injuries to their legs and arms, 61,000 ha wounds to their head or to their eyes. So it really changed the landscape of disabled people in Britain. But of course I'm also interested in psychological trauma. I know millions were driven insane, and the best estimate is about 20% of casualties were psychiatric casualties, so I was really interested in what happened when those people came back and the effect on women, their mothers, their sister, their daughters also had this sort of grenade lobbed into their life as a result of the war when their menfolk came home, and they had to provide that emotional labor in trying to help them, trying to provide sustenance for these people.
Theo Mayer: And heading to the psychological impact, and given that your focus is from a historian's perspective, not a medical practitioner, addressing what was called then shell shock and now known as PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, how was shell shock viewed socially in context, medically?
Joanna Bourke: At the time of the war, the idea of trauma itself was actually really relatively unknown in the general public. With the First World War, shell shock became something that everyone understood and everyone knew about. It was actually invented in 1915 by a physician called Charles Myers, because he believed that the infliction, people breaking down in combat, was the result of literally a shell exploding nearby causing shock waves that literally severed men's nerves. Others at the same time believed that men and indeed women, who broke down in war, actually had a predisposition to emotional instability. From the middle of the war, people started to observe, and indeed Charles Myers himself observed, that men were suffering from shell shock who had never been anywhere near the front lines. The ideas started to change that in fact shell shock was a psychological problem, an emotional problem rather than a physiological one. So they began to look for emotional reasons why this might happen. Now of course British society was a very highly stratiefied society, so there were distinctions make between different kinds of people who were suffering from shell shock. Lowly privates were generally thought to be suffering from hysteria, a woman-ish disorder. It was regarded a form of cowardice. In contrast, when men of the officer class broke down in warfare, they were more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder such as neurasthenia. If you were diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia, an anxiety disorder, you could lie on the couch. If you were diagnosed as suffering from hysteria or something, you could even be shot at dawn. So these were really important changes that happened in the course of the war.
Theo Mayer: There's a lot of talk about the men and the suffering of cowardice, and they literally shot men for cowardice. What about the women who served?
Joanna Bourke: It's really been relatively recently that people have started to look at the experience of women in or near the front lines. In some aspects of war, actually more women were killed than men. You do have cases of women who were serving as competence. I'm thinking here of a famous British woman called Flora Sandes, who wrote very eloquently at the time about the fact that as a woman, she had to prove herself, precisely because she was a woman. If we look at the Russian army (in the Second World War) over half a million Soviet women served in the Red Army, another 300,000 served in anti-aircraft and other forms of combat. This is not an insignificant number of women. But more typically, of course women were serving as nurses. They were cooks, they did supply services, they drove cart trucks, looked after aircraft. Of course after the war, their contributions were largely neglected. Indeed, even though 8% of the Soviet forces were women, and even though those women actually had a higher death rate than men, they were explicitly excluded from the victory celebrations. Typically, they were just simply forgotten or neglected, and that's only changed in very recent years.
Theo Mayer: What was such a large segment of the population having served in the conflict, this trauma becomes a socio-cultural issue. How did it affect Great Britain at large?
Joanna Bourke: It had a huge effect on Great Britain. So many men came back disabled, a huge portion of women lost their husbands. You actually get surprisingly, women marrying men who are younger than themselves for the first time. Prior to the First World War, at least in the elite class, you knew who was going to take over. But of course so many of those men were actually killed, so you get a change in social nobility. This is particularly clear in the case of women's lives, because of course during the First World War, they were able to enter forms of employment that had previously been closed to them, so you get a real shift of women for example, into the civil service, into post office, into factory labor. You get massive increase in trade unionism of women- something like a 160% increase. Women have a much greater sense of personal freedom as a result of the war, and of course we have the suffrage movement, and a certain proportion of women actually getting the vote by the end of the war. The president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Society made a famous declaration. She said something along the lines of, “The war revolutionized the industrial position of women. It found them serfs and set them free.”
Theo Mayer: There's a closing question. From your perspective and study, what would you say the single most important lesson as humans that we can learn from the legacy of pain and fear that World War I represented?
Joanna Bourke: I think if we really just bear witness to the trauma of those years. I think we need actually to continue to be shocked by the shells that our factories still produce. A few years ago, I wrote a book called Deep Violence, and that book looks at the extent to which military practices, technologies, military symbols continue to invade all of our everyday lives. We need to pay more attention to the fact that we are still producing those shells. We have a duty to future generations to ensure that we don't have another major world war, which is in fact not implausible.
Theo Mayer: Joanna, thank you very much.
Joanna Bourke: It's been great talking to you.
Theo Mayer: Joanna Bourke is a Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, an author of many books and papers. Learn more about her and her work at the link in the podcast notes.