Tyne Cot Cemetery

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Blood-red the berries the yew trees bear,

Flesh-soft amid the shining dark, yet the fruit falls

Uneaten and ignored, for few birds feed here.

Bone-white the headstones, rank-on-rank,

Shoulder-to-shoulder, some named, some not,

Yet all cared for tenderly, with offerings

Of flowers, crosses, letters and the like.

I did not weep; I could not.

For to begin, one could never make an end.

Instead, I tuned it out, I numbed my soul,

Silenced the internal howls of horror,of grief

For a generation wiped carelessly from the earth,

All hopes and dreams and loves gone, lost,

In a sea of endless mud and politicians’ lies.

October 6th 2017,

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium

This poem appeared in The New European last week.

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Is Britain still “Shell-Shocked”? A question for World Mental Health Day

Today I am hosting a guest post for my friend Suzie.

 

Suzie Grogan is a London-born professional writer and researcher in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Suzie’s first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling Lives Affected by Depression and Anxiety was published in 2012 and she also writes for a wide variety of national magazines. Suzie also runs a popular blog, ‘No wriggling out of writing’, and presents a local radio show on literature, called ‘Talking Books’.

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In 2012 I edited a book entitled Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives lived with depression and anxiety. It is an anthology of poetry, prose and photos produced by more than twenty people good enough to contribute to a monthly guest post slot on my blog No wriggling out of writing. They were prompted by my own story ‘Mental health, motherhood and finding the real me’ in which I revealed my own struggles with depression, anxiety and OCD. Vivienne herself was a key contributor to the book, the title itself coming from one of her moving pieces.

I found sharing my struggles became easier; especially as it became clear there were many out there who were experiencing similar issues. Through chats with wonderful people like Viv I realised there is much that still needs to be understood about the nature and impact of mental ill-health. As I had already documented a family history story on my blog – my discovery that my great uncle Alfred Hardiman had murdered an ex-girlfriend and then committed suicide whilst of ‘unsound mind’ and that he had been affected by his experience in the Great War, I became interested in the idea of ‘transgenerational trauma’, and how the impact of the First World War might have affected my family across and down the generations. I was shocked to learn that two of Alfred’s sisters had ended their lives in mental hospitals and at least three other close family members had significant mental health problems.

Furthermore, my family are not in any way unique. I delved deep into the newspaper archives and found many similar tragedies, and evidence that shell shocked soldiers and their families, as well as their communities and society as a whole had experienced a kind of collective grief and shock, the repercussions of which echo down the century. It is, I believe, why we are still so deeply affected by the conflict a century on.

I pitched the idea of a book on the subject to Pen and Sword Books and was lucky enough to be commissioned to write Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health.

I was to look at the impact of the Great War not only on the troops, but on their families and the nation as a whole. Whilst doing so I was also going to examine its impact on the treatments available post-war and on attitudes to mental illness in the ‘20s and ‘30s. As I uncovered more and still more stories of tragic events continuing until the outbreak of the Second World War I saw how many of them seemed eerily similar to stories we continue to hear now. I quickly realised we have not made a tenth of the progress we ought to have made in a world where conflict is global and peace-keeping a fallacy.

Service personnel still break down. Suicide, domestic violence, alcoholism, relationship breakdown, violent crime – rates are all higher amongst ex-service personnel than in the general population. These were issues that had been faced by those shell shocked men returning after the First World War, to a world that had no language to express the horrors they had witnessed. Surely, I thought, it should be different in the 21st century?

I have been told many times over the past two years of writing Shell Shocked Britain that ‘it was a different world back then…’ In many ways it was but we are currently going through a period of immense social change, much as they did 100 years ago. Globalisation and the information revolution as well as the speed of technological change leaves many exhausted and drained and even those who felt immune from mental illness can find themselves swept away by the intensity of it all.

We are, after all, still human. Those alive 100 years ago are our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. They loved and grieved for those lost and felt fear, anxiety, horror and revulsion at the atrocities that were being perpetrated. They may not have had the vocabulary we have now, or the acceptance of psychotherapy and the opportunity it offers to express the pain and deal with it positively, and were restricted by the social mores of the time, but they still searched for meaning in the horror.

One of the most interesting questions that I could not answer for certain related to those who appeared unscathed or saw the war as the making of them. Were they simply repressing the horrors described by so many others? And if so, did it matter?

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp wrote ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour, suggesting that it is those unaffected who are responding in the ‘abnormal’ fashion. Those who can see the horror and remain sanguine are perhaps closer to insanity.

As service personnel continue to break down and find it hard to admit they need help for fear of it suggesting weakness, it is clear that those complex issues have not been addressed. One of the most telling phrases I read as I researched Shell Shocked Britain comes from a leaflet published by the charity Combat Stress:

‘The man who lost his life in Iraq now lives in Birmingham…’

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpeg

 

Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health to be published by Pen & Sword History October 2014. See http://www.facebook.com/shellshockedbritain or follow @ShellShockedGB on twitter for more details.

 

“I know you can fight. But can you stand, lads? Can you stand?” ~ a bit of Sharpe wisdom

I know you can fight. But can you stand, lads? Can you stand?” ~ a bit of  Sharpe wisdom

When it comes to films, or TV, I’d generally far rather watch war than romance. I read most of the Bernard Cornwall Sharpe books and have seen all the films. It’s not that I’m into war, but I do think that conflict can show someone’s true colours far more graphically than romance. People put under intolerable pressure are somehow more interesting and war does that. “Sharpe” is set during the Peninsula war against Napoleon and follows the adventures of Richard Sharpe as he rises improbably through the ranks to reach first Lieutenant, then Captain and finally Major. Born illegitimate and of low standing, Sharpe is cunning, resourceful and brave. Not to mention astonishingly lucky, given some of the scrapes he lives through.

There’s an episode in the earlier films where he is obliged to train a bunch of raw recruits in record time to face battle. Guns at this time were still muzzle loaded muskets, with rifles being the province of the sharp shooters, highly trained and highly prized “Chosen men”, and one of the requirements to be a good soldier was the ability to fire three rounds a minute while under fire yourself. It’s far from easy. The process requires great discipline and training to perform a sequence of fiddly tasks mechanically, until it becomes completely automatic and second nature. Usually it would take weeks and weeks of intense drilling to transform recruits who’d never fired a gun before into efficient soldiers, but Sharpe has only days to do it. Needless to say, all his soldiers come up to scratch.

It’s his pre-battle speech that has always inspired me. As he and his little regiment wait, listening to the drums of the approaching French army and the heart stopping chant of “Vive L’Empereur!” he tries to give them that edge of courage with a rousing speech. He tells them they’re good soldiers already because they can all reliably fire 3 rounds a minute, and that they’re all good lads. Then he talks about the approaching battle, and how they must wait till they can see the enemy and even smell the garlic on their breath. “I know you can fight,” he says, “but can you stand?” Can they stand, and hold their position, and not break and run away, in terror, as the enemy fires at them and they see their friends falling, gutted or heads blown off? Can they stand, waiting for orders and maintain their ranks, even when they have pissed themselves in fear and carry on with their firing three rounds a minute? That, and not the three rounds a minute is what truly makes a good soldier.   

I’ve never been in a battle situation and never will but I know how hard it is to stand when it feels like the unseen enemy is firing at me, and I do not know what is coming next. The feeling of needing to bolt, to run away is huge and yet, it’s probably the worst thing you could do. Like retreating soldiers in a rout, we are at our most vulnerable when we flee in blind panic. You make decisions that are based on fear and nothing more concrete than the desperate need to get away.

A year ago, I felt the beginnings of a dreadful change, before it happened, and the fall out from that is still with me in terms of a very real grief that never quite heals. I’m feeling another change coming, like very distant drums, beating miles away, approaching steadily. I can’t see yet whether those are drums to announce an enemy or whether they are drums to dance to.

I know I can fight. But can I stand?