Search This Blog

Sunday, August 09, 2015

WWI, Shell Shock, and Virgins

I've long had an interest in WWI, probably first engendered by the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (first read and loved when in high school).  

Novels about WWI have only added to that interest, developed it, and inspired further research--so easy to do with the internet when something arouses curiosity.  All Quiet on the Western Front, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, the first books in the Maisie Dobbs series, Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford series (both deal with WWI), Speller's The Return of Captain John Emmett, Anita Shreve's Stella Bain, R.F. Delderfield's To Serve Them All Their Days, Mike Mignola and Christoper Golden's Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire  (allegorical), and others that I can't recall right now have all covered various aspects of the first World War.

Many of the books above mention shell shock, which I've always equated with PTSD; recently, however, I watched a documentary about shell shock with film footage of WWI victims that exhibited seriously different symptoms, as well as similar ones.  The documentary has footage made by doctors and psychiatrists at the time.  It is heartbreaking and distressing and clearly shows some of the horrors of trench warfare.  

Western Front Casualties
July–December 1916[Note 3]
Frenchc. 434,000
c. 947,289
Germanc. 719,000
Grand totalc. 1,666,289
The statistics are dreadful.   The Battle of the Somme (from July 1-November 18, 1916), saw, on the first day, over 57,000 U.K. deaths.  On the first day.  

Add to that the deaths of the Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, French, and German casualties, and it is impossible to imagine the misery and horror that existed after only one day.
A battlefield populated by the dead and dying.

The Western Front Casualties (shown on the right) gives total casualties of the Battle of the Somme that lasted from July to Nov.  Over a million and a half men died, German and Allied.

Among the Allies, the losses of the U.K. are especially dramatic because of its small size. The U.K. (50, 346 sq. miles) is slightly smaller than the state of Louisiana (51,843 sq. miles)--that awareness gives some idea of the devastation to British forces during only one battle.  There were also the battles of Tannenberg, Marnes, Verdun, Arras, Galliopoli, Ypres.... 

I'm always stunned when looking at this kind of statistical information.  Magnify these deaths by the survivors who loved these men.  Then add the physically wounded and those who suffered from shell shock.  Although the problems with shell shock occurred as early as 1914, after the Somme, 35,000 men were diagnosed.  

Both Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were treated for shell shock.  The bitterness is Sassoon's "Survivors" is evident.

32. Survivors 
NO doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
  Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—
  These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed         5
  Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
  Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
Craiglockart. October, 1917.

Naturally, as I read different articles, I find other aspects that interest me.  Novels often mention the shortage of men in the U.K. after the war, but here is an excerpt from a startling article I found in the Daily Mail:  Condemned to Be Virgins.

They dreamt of love, marriage and children. But, as a new book reveals, the Great War robbed two million women of the men they would have married, leading many into relationships which could only be whispered about...

One hazy morning in 1917 the senior mistress of Bournemouth High School For Girls stood up in front of the assembled sixth form and announced to her hushed audience: 

"I have come to tell you a terrible fact.

"Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess of mine. It is a statistical fact.

"Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.

"The war has made more openings for women than there were before. But there will still be a lot of prejudice. You will have to fight. You will have to struggle."

Read more:
Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

I've added Singled Out,  a nonfiction, historical account to my wishlist.  And a link to some of the best of WWI poetry.
What are your favorite WWI books?  Either fact, fiction, or poetry.


  1. I've read many of the same books on WWI that you have and the stories they tell are staggering. Have you ever read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, a nonfiction account of the first days of the war, it horrified me.

    1. I haven't read it, but I intend to. It won the Pulitzer in 1963 and is definitely on my list. I expect it will horrify me, too.

  2. Wonderful post! So much senseless tragedy. My grandmother lost her beloved half-brother, who died in WW I in France -- I don't think she ever completely got over it.

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! When you count all the loved ones who lost someone in the war, the despair is beyond belief. It is also remarkable that within 20 years of the Armistice, another war was on the horizon.

  3. I've read Singled Out - it really brought home to me the effects of those great losses. A very readable book.

    1. Knowing that someone else has read and appreciated the book helps. My wish list is long, it is always a bonus to have a reader's recommendation when I choose!