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24 September 2014

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Devon centre pioneered treatment for victims of shell shock
Seale Hayne
The old military hospital at Seale Hayne is now an agricultural college
The First World War devastated the lives of a generation of young men. But the trauma of war didn't end when the guns stopped firing. For many soldiers shell shock was one of the devastating legacies of the conflict.
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The term 'shell shock' was coined in 1917 by a Medical Officer called Charles Myers.

By 1916, over 40% of the casualties in fighting zones were victims of shell shock.

By the end of the war over 80,000 cases of shell shock had passed through British Army medical facilities.

Eighty per cent of shell shock cases were never able to return to military duty.

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A military hospital at Seale Hayne near Newton Abbot played a remarkable role in curing First World War soldiers suffering from shell shock.

Thousands of soldiers returned from the battlefield shell shocked from the sheer horror and fear of the war.

By the end of the war, 20,000 men were suffering from shell shock. Thousands more had experienced its symptoms during their military service.

But one remarkable doctor based in Devon believed he could cure them all.

Arthur Hurst
Arthur Hurst pioneered the treatment of victims at Seale Hayne in Devon.
Arthur Hurst worked at Seale Hayne in rural south Devon, one of the medical centres used to deal with the trauma of the men returning from the trenches.

At the time there was little sympathy for shell shock victims.

Shell shock was generally seen as a sign of emotional weakness or cowardice.

Many soldiers were charged with desertion, cowardice, or insubordination. The unlucky ones were subjected to a mock trial, charged, and executed.

Shell shock victims found themselves at the mercy of the armed forces' medical officers.

Treatment was often harsh and included...
  • solitary confinement
  • disciplinary treatment
  • electric shock treatment
  • shaming and physical re-education
  • emotional deprivation

Across the country, doctors were mystified by the condition that became known as shell shock.

Shell shock victim at Seale Hayne
Shell shock victims at Plymouth's Seale Hayne were encouraged to work in the fields to forget their trauma
At first shell shock was thought to be caused by soldiers being exposed to exploding shells.

But doctors coudn't find any physical damage to explain the symptoms.

Medical staff started to realise that there were deeper causes.

Many soldiers found themselves re-living their experiences of combat long after the war had ended.

Shell shock victims often couldn't eat or sleep, whilst others continued to suffer physical symptoms.

Officers suffered some of the worst symptoms because they were called upon to repress their emotions to set an example for their men.

The war poet Siegfried Sassoon, himself a victim, describes the psychological pain of shell shock in his poem "Survivors".

He talks of soldiers with "dreams that drip with murder" and their "stammering, disconnected talk".

The 'lucky' ones were treated with a variety of 'cures' including hypnosis, massage, rest and dietary treatments.

Soldier with bull
On the farm at Seale Hayne - a soldier forgets the misery of the trenches
At Seale Hayne near Newton Abbot, the approach was revolutionary for its time.

Arthur Hurst, an army major, made the only film about how shell shock victims were treated in Britain.

His miracle treatments meant that he was able to cure 90% of shell shocked soldiers in just one session.

Hurst took the men to the peace and quiet of the rolling Devon countryside.

The men toiled on the farm, and were encouraged to use their creative energies.

"The main work was occupational therapy," explained Arthur's son Christopher.

"These solders who had been shell shocked had lost vital faculties like walking and speaking.

"They were given jobs to do and this was interspersed with intensive therapy sessions," said Christopher.

"My father was the guiding genius here and he cured these cases by means of persuasion and hypnotism."

Hurst's pioneering methods were both humane and sympathetic. It was a miracle that literally saved the lives of dozens of shattered men.

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