Tag Archives: soldiers

Shell Shock, Celluloid and World War One: The discomforts of being a spectator

This post was contributed by Rebecca Royle, who is starting Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing in September. 

Spectators for Shell Shock“What deep wounds ever closed without a scar? The hearts bleed longest, and but heal to wear that which disfigures it.” – Byron

Last night at Birkbeck Arts Week 2014, Theatre expert and cultural critic Tiffany Watt-Smith, like a poultice drew out a longing within me that only human moments like war can.

WAR Neuroses (1917) a Pathos ‘motion picture’ on celluloid created by Major Arthur Hurst at Netley Hospital was already projected on the wall behind me as I awkwardly hurried into the Keynes Library with a million operational travel frustrations zipping around my hot head. The inward body language and afflicted eyes of the audience as I approached to
find a seat immediately sobered me. I sat. I watched. I winced. The figures on the screen jerked and ticked. The celluloid flickered. Internal references of Charlie Chaplin collided with a loin clothed Private contorted with paralysis as he contracted and spasmed on the floor of a skeletally furnished room. A frivolity, a mimicry, a vaudevillian performance as men were assumingly instructed to line up and exert themselves in the matter of walking or running seemingly on a street corner for some amusement of the unseen camera man.

What is it about deformity, disease and mental health that repulses and fascinates us so much? These defects exposed to our crimeless eyes, thrust shame upon us as they repel the guided and expected behaviours our society dictates. And do these feelings of shame and negative evaluation change across time?

Shell shock blog


Aristotle asserted that being female represents the ‘first step’ along the road towards deformity. Gender interestingly did become a subject of debate during the Q&A as we discussed Charcot and his photographic studies of hysteria in women.




Da Vinci Vitruvian Man

It made me think about Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and his proportions of perfection, the ideal body. Are we programmed to feel more shame for a man than a woman? Is a deformed man more shameful than a pitiful woman? And is it only perspective that separates our reaction as an audience today from the suspicious, unsparing damnation of its day?

I think here it’s worth thinking about the great rhetoric of Lord Kitchener and his propaganda campaign, the fact that Germany was starving both soldier and countryman and the heavy daily governance of the people. For example, before the WWI garden allotments were reserved for the eccentric, by its end there were 1.5m across the country. There was a ‘Win The War’ cookbook, beer was watered down and drinking discouraged, the Women’s Patrol founded as part of The Police Force were now unbelievably guarding the sex lives of soldiers on leave. The status quo had changed so why shouldn’t hungry, frightened, dissatisfied people be disgusted by the weak deserters who presented such a
ghoulish spectacle? For me I think this context of punishment, shunning and ostracism makes WAR Neuroses and Shell Shock that much heavier to bear. That shame that lies within our DNA reminds us there are still lessons to learn for the future. WWI and the destruction it hurled at the world has then at the very least served us in reforming how we view mental illness.

As we followed the narrative of Watt-Smith’s paper, we were accompanied by a screen saver slide show with close-up photography from the natural world. Perhaps it was triggered by talk of fractal perfection from the stunning lecture Clouds: Objects, Metaphor,
Phenomena from the previous night, but contrary to its incongruence, it served to me as a stark contrast to the examination of such a spectacle of pain and disfigurement.

A truly enriching evening, thank you.


Soldiers’ homecoming in poetry and prose

This post was written by Bryony Merritt, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

A soldier relating his exploits in a tavern-1821-John Cawse-Copyright-Ownership of Natinoal Army Museum London

John Cawse ‘A soldier relating his exploits in a tavern’ (1821) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

The transition from military service to civilian existence has never been easy, as demonstrated in the accounts presented by Dr Kate McLoughlin on the first day of Birkbeck Arts Week 2014. Despite covering a period of over 2000 years, during which methods of warfare have changed beyond recognition, the emotions and experiences of the homecoming soldiers revealed striking similarities.

After the Battle of Waterloo, all veterans of the Battle were awarded a medal, one of which can be seen on the soldier’s uniform in John Cawse’s A Soldier Relating his Exploits in a Tavern (1821), while he proudly expounds upon his heroic feats. Dr McLoughlin drew our attention, however, to the more ambiguous response of his audience, whose demeanour suggests that they are less than enthralled by the soldier’s storytelling.

This kind of scene may be ambivalence towards the heroic status of the returned soldier is captured also by William Wordsworth in The Discharged Soldier. When pressed for stories from the war, the soldier responds with

A strange half-absence and a tone

Of weakness and indifference, as of one

Remembering the importance of his theme

but feeling it no longer

The discharged soldier’s reluctance (or perhaps inability) to share his story, contrasts to the British Government’s 1915 poster, encouraging men to sign up for the army by appealing to their desire to be able to recount their contribution to a future family. The poster shows a little girl asking “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” However, the father’s pensive gaze, to me, suggested he was not about to launch into tales of bravery and heroics. At first glance it seems to me that the poster aims to evoke a feeling of embarrassment at the idea of not having a heroic tale to tell in future. But the artist has unwittingly captured an expression which could be translated as the reluctance of a discharged soldier to brag of his former actions.

Henry Nelson O'Neil 'Home Again' (1858) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

Henry Nelson O’Neil ‘Home Again’ (1858) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

The ‘soldier as hero’ can be a difficult role to fill, suggested Dr McLoughlin. On homecoming, soldiers are welcomed as heroes, as depicted in Henry Nelson O’ Neil’s Home Again (1858). However, Henry Metcalfe’s memoirs describe how, following his return from India in 1859, the warm welcome by a “grateful public” was soon forgotten and Thomas Jackson’s memoirs (I missed the date of this publication) describe how he “sees himself as an isolated being”.  The hero of Eric Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) describes how following the reunion with his family he sensed “a veil between us.”

The change which creates this distance between soldiers and the people and places that were previously so familiar to them was so pronounced in some of the accounts that the soldier was not even recognised by his family. Upon Odysseus’ return to Ithaca it is only his dog and his former wet nurse who recognise him (and the latter only because of a scar on his leg). Even the wife who has faithfully seen off suitors during his 20-year absence fails to recognise her husband. John Ryder, who published his memoir in 1853, describes how on his return to Twyford he went first to the pub where he met with lifelong acquaintances, and later his father and mother, none of whom recognised him.

The final returning soldier to whom we were introduced was the captain in Helen Ashton’s novel The Captain Comes Home (1947). On learning that his wife has remarried during his long absence during World War Two, the captain returns to his village and assaults her new husband, for which he is put on trial. Identifying the significance of this literary trial, Dr McLoughlin concluded by noting that the weight of expectation on homecoming soldiers throughout history and today means that they all face trials of their own.