Did the trauma of World War One lead to great creativity?

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1. The trauma of World War One

Service in World War One was an incredibly traumatic experience. 10% of officers and 4% of soldiers were diagnosed with "nervous and mental shock,” and the British army treated over 80,000 cases of shell shock.

Shell shock was a vague term given to the physical and mental reaction of some people to the mental trauma they suffered in war, and was poorly understood at the time. Other soldiers and support staff suffered from less obvious symptoms of trauma, which manifested in more subtle ways.

Artists who served during the war were influenced by the trauma they suffered. This can be seen in their works – from poems detailing their experiences to autobiographies where the process of writing helped them cope with their trauma.

2. What trauma does to the mind

During World War One, the army founded and requisitioned hospitals specifically to treat those suffering from mental illness.

Maudsley hospital in London was one of these, and a 1915 act of parliament was passed to allow the hospital to accept voluntary patients suffering from shell shock. Patients received a short course of treatment which involved creative pastimes like carpentry and gardening designed.

As well as treating patients, early research was conducted into the puzzling symptoms of mental trauma. Dr Victoria Tischler, professor of behavioural sciences at the University of Nottingham, discusses the psychology of trauma, how it is diagnosed, and how creativity can provide a way of dealing trauma.

3. Vera Brittain's experience of war

Vera Brittain wrote her autobiography Testament of Youth after serving as a nurse in World War One. She joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment in 1915 and served in England, France and Malta. Her brother and fiance both signed up and were killed in World War One.

She became disillusioned with war, and was a strong advocate of pacifism in her later life, a view which was influenced by her experiences in World War One. Writing Testament of Youth was a way of dealing with the trauma she had suffered during the war.

When she died in 1970 her ashes were scattered on her brother's grave in Italy.

4. How was trauma understood at the time?

During World War One, men were considered helpless following trauma. Sympathy was rare - a medical superintendent at one military hospital said a patient 'must be induced to face his illness in a manly way'.

At the start of the war it was believed that mental disturbances were physical injuries caused by the shockwaves of exploding shells, but that did not explain why similar symptoms of trauma were seen in soldiers, nurses and other ancillary staff who had never been at the front line. Some exhibited only minor symptoms and others were traumatised extremely severely, with major physical symptoms rendering them incapable of performing their jobs.

Doctors treated their patients for their psychological symptoms instead of the underlying problem, or even worse, thought the patients were malingering in order to escape their military obligations.

By 1917, it was recognised that mental trauma was being caused by exposure to the horrors of war, though it was still poorly understood, and soldiers were treated in dedicated hospitals and wards across the UK, such as the Maudsley hospital in London, County of Middlesex War Hospital, Belfast War Hospital and Craiglockart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were treated.

Artist Adrian Hill was an official war painter in World War One, and later coined the term art therapy, a recognition of the healing power of art. He went on to work with veterans in World War Two to treat mental disorders using art.

5. Inspiration and commemoration

Maurice Ravel

Composer Maurice Ravel was 39 when war broke out, and had already spent years as a successful composer. He tried to enlist as an aviator but was denied due to his age and poor health, and spent the war as a truck driver.

He composed relatively little during the war, but he did write one of his best known works, le tombeau de Couperin. Each of the six movements is dedicated to a friend or friends who were killed in World War One.

Ivor Gurney

Poet Ivor Gurney revisited his experiences of war repeatedly in his poems, a classic symptom of trauma.

He wrote poetry while in the trenches. He had predominantly composed music before the war, but the lack of tools and peace in the trenches meant he concentrated on poetry, which could be written more easily in short periods of inactivity on scraps of paper.

Gurney suffered from serious mental health issues both before and after World War One, and spent most of this life after the war in the City of London Mental Hospital, where he wrote prolifically, inspired and tormented by his experiences in the trenches of the western front.

6. Ongoing importance of creativity after trauma

Baroness Shirley Williams discusses the ways that creativity is used to help sufferers of trauma.

7. The effect of trauma on soldier poets

The style of the soldier poets changed greatly over the course of the war. Click the options to see examples of Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney's poetry.


Siegfried Sassoon's early war poetry

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Excerpt from “Because We Are Going.”

"...Thus are we heroes; since we might not choose To live where Honour gave us life to lose.”


Siegfried Sassoon's late war poetry

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Excerpt from “Survivors.”

"Men who went out to battle, grim and glad; Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.”

ca. 1916

Ivor Gurney's early war poetry

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ca. 1916

Excerpt from “Beauty”

"...But though the trees have long since lost their green, And I, the exile, can but dream of things, Grown magic in the mind."

ca. 1917

Ivor Gurney's late war poetry

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ca. 1917

Excerpt from “To His Love”

"...And with thick-set, Masses of memoried flowers, Hide that red wet, Thing I must somehow forget."