Does your community group want to participate in a Trauma and the First World War workshop?

As part of the closing events of the First World War centenary, Hidden Histories have been running a series of trauma and the First World War workshops for community researchers. The idea has been to encourage NHLF First World War Then and Now community researchers to integrate issues in relation to the long-term effects of trauma into their World War One community history projects.

Our project has been awarded a little bit of extra funding from the University of Nottingham School of Medicine to offer a couple more trauma and the First World War workshops, ideally to audiences or in locations that the team have yet to visit. These are likely to be locations such as the South coast and/or the North of England. We are looking for community venues and groups who might like to participate. In terms of the session itself, we would need:

  • A room with PowerPoint facilities for two hours
  • A group of participants
  • The session to run before the end of 2019.

However, apart from that the session would be free of charge, and the group would have the choice of either the a) trauma and the First World War workshop, or b) the trauma, women and the First World War workshop (where the focus is more on gender history). Every participant gets a free copy of the ‘Shell Shock Stories and Beyond: Research Guide and Bibliography’ as part of attending the session.  If you are interested in a workshop, please contact: L.Allwork@derby.ac.uk and Andrea.Kocurkova@nottingham.ac.uk

Women and Trauma Workshop at Glasgow Women’s Library

Dr Larissa Allwork and Andrea Kocurkova gave a workshop on women and First World War trauma as part of the AHRC First World War Engagement Centre Festival on Women and War held at Glasgow Women’s Library between 30th and 31st August 2019.

Larissa and Andrea. Photographer unknown.

Larissa and Andrea worked with a group of ten engaged, knowledgeable and enthusiastic participants to explore female experiences of trauma during World War I. The concept of shell shock is problematic in gender terms, both because it continues to be primarily associated with male experiences of trench warfare, and because during the war male shell shock sufferers were often stigmatised as being ‘un-manly’. Drawing on the work of researchers like Tracey Loughran, Christine Hallett and Santanu Das, Larissa and Andrea introduced the group to a range of primary sources and sought to explore the various ways through which specific female war-time experiences of trauma were felt, and left their trace in primary sources such as memoirs, pension records and oral histories.

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Talking about Traumatic Histories at Family Tree Live

On Friday 26th April 2019, Professor Nigel Hunt and Dr Larissa Allwork gave a lecture on ‘Trauma and the First World War’ to family historians attending the first ever Family Tree Live at Alexandra Palace, London (26 – 27 April 2017). At the Society of Genealogists stage and to approximately 45 audience members, Nigel explained what is meant by traumatic stress during the First World War and Larissa went through the various archives in the UK where information about trauma and the First World War might be found. After their talk, all of the information about these archives was made available to audience members through the ‘Shell Shock Stories and Beyond: Research Guide and Bibliography’, available on this website and through the ‘Lecture notes’ section of the Family Tree Live website.

Larissa outside Alexandra Palace.

Nigel and Larissa also talked about the broader history of Alexandra Palace. Alexandra Palace was a powerful place to host this talk as in 1914 it had acted as a camp for Belgian refugees before it became a civilian internment camp for Germans, Austrians and Hungarians between 1915 and 1919. Some internees reported psychological distress. An account from 1916 by Richard Perls in the National Archives reports that, “acute mental breakdown frequently occurs [among the in-mates], cases of insanity result, symptoms of many illnesses appear.” During the First World War, the Swiss physician Dr Adolf Lukas Vischer (1884-1974) was deployed by the Italian Red Cross to serve at field hospitals. He also visited POW camps in Turkey and England, where he observed in-mates, and saw recurring symptoms of boredom, confusion, amnesia and depression. Reflecting on these experiences, Vischer formulated the diagnosis of ‘barbed wire disease’. While it was not initially recognised as form of war neurosis, more recently Psychiatry and Psychology experts such as Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely have made the case that it shares symptoms with what is now known as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Audience Feedback on Nigel and Larissa’s talk:

  • “[I] Learned much more about the context and some possible research sources to find out more about my father’s treatment.”
  • “The depth of the mental health issue was much more complex than I realised.”
  • “Insight into the long-term effects.”
  • “I was unaware that soldiers were executed for desertion or cowardice.”
  • “Mention of trauma in the civilian population.”

After the talk, Nigel and Larissa had the opportunity to explore the 120 stalls dedicated to different archives and publishers, local and regional family history organisations and genealogical associations for diaspora groups. There were also other lectures and talks by family history experts throughout the day. Of particular interest to those working on the First World War were stalls by Living Military History, the Ministry of Defence, the Anglo-German History Society, and the British Red Cross Museum and Archives. Excitingly, the British Red Cross Museum and Archives has launched a new online index card collection of First World War volunteers during the 1914-1918 conflict.

A number of talks also gave lots of helpful hints and tips for family history research into the First World War. Janet Few’s talk on twentieth-century family history drew attention to the fact that post-First World War absent voters lists are now becoming available, and that these are a particularly useful source for tracing those who served and survived the 1914-1918 conflict. There was also a great talk by PhD scholar, Katy Barbier-Greenland on ‘Inheriting the Unexpected: Dealing with Unforseen Family Secret Discoveries’. Katy’s sociological research explores what it means for individuals to uncover difficult pasts as part of their family history research. These include unknown parents, hidden adoption, histories of racism or the covering up of mental health issues. If family historians discover a difficult history Katy advises that:

  • If required, seek support from friends, counsellors and/or support groups.
  • Where possible try and refrain from moral judgement – although there are certain circumstances where this might be impossible. People keep secrets for strong reasons and there are generational differences in relation to what is stigmatised or constructed as taboo behaviour.
  • If you decide to tell other family members make sure that your evidence is robust and break the news sensitively, in private rather than at a family gathering. People often want to know the truth but don’t be surprised if there is a reaction. Even secrets from a couple of generations ago can still have an impact now.

    Larissa and Nigel giving their lecture at Family Tree Live