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

Hidden Histories Trauma Workshop held at First World War Engagement Centres ‘Diversity’ Festival

Associate Professor Nigel Hunt (The University of Nottingham) and Dr Larissa Allwork (The University of Derby) presented their first community workshop on trauma and the First World War at the ‘Diversity’ festival on Saturday 23rd March. The two-day event was organised by Voices of War and Peace at Midland’s Arts Centre  and it also featured presentations by Hidden Histories network members Irfan Malik, Kiran Sahota, Garry Stewart and Professor Jane Chapman.

Providing public engagement training to the next generation of researchers, Nigel and Larissa have been preparing their workshop with the assistance of University of Nottingham doctoral researchers, Andrea Kocurkova and Shruti Raghuraman. The purpose of the trauma and the First World War workshop is to encourage family historians and community researchers to consider dealing with this topic as part of their investigations into the history of the First World War, particularly as the centenary commemorations are now turning towards thinking about the aftermath and legacies of the conflict.

Working in dialogue between the disciplines of Psychology and History, the workshop provides an introduction to how trauma was understood during the First World War, offers a range of primary sources that can be used in tracing trauma through the archives, and encourages participants to think about how they could devise their own history project on trauma and the 1914-18 conflict. To facilitate this process, all participants are given a research guide and bibliography to take home with them after the session. Click here to access a copy of the Trauma & the FWW Research Guide and Bibliography


For the first session in Birmingham, the team worked with ten highly engaged participants. Historical sources that were discussed in detail included Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, ‘Survivors’; a compilation of oral history testimonies on the aftermath of war from the East Midlands Oral History Archive; a 1919 Sanatogen advert claiming to cure shell shock and a letter to the Ministry of Pensions from a former VAD suffering with the onset of post-war neurasthenia.

Given the theme of the conference which was ‘Diversity’ we also talked about war neuroses in the global context, through the censored mail of Indian soldiers at the Brighton Hospital and court-martials which occurred beyond the Western Front.

Projects that were suggested by participants included:

  • Re-visiting the histories of hospitals like Birmingham to see how they treated soldiers with war neuroses.
  • The use of trauma frameworks to analyse the diaries and memoirs of nurses and VADs who worked with refugees.
  • The use of historical primary sources in schools to introduce the topic of the First World War, shell shock and trauma.
  • Community history projects in relation to those men who were ‘shot at dawn’ and were excluded from commemoration in local UK war memorials.

Participants in the Birmingham workshop gave the following feedback about the session: 

“Good workshop very in-depth, comprehensive and professional.”

“Excellent discussion and useful resources to help develop thinking further.”

The workshop changed my understanding of the First World War because it covered: “The effect of trauma on whole communities as well as individuals and their loved ones.”

The Trauma and the First World War team will be appearing at Family Tree Live on Friday 26th April at Alexandra Palace, London. The team will also be presenting the trauma and the First World War workshop at the First World War Engagement Centre festivals across the UK this summer – catch us at sessions in Omagh (May), Cardiff (July) and Glasgow (August). More details in relation to dates, times and venues will be posted on Twitter (@hidden_hist).

Alternatively, if you have an idea in relation to a trauma and the First World War project, do not hesitate to get in touch with us to discuss: and  



Trauma and the First World War: Public Engagement Update

In June 2018, Professor Nigel Hunt and Dr Larissa Allwork launched a project exploring narratives of trauma from the First World War. The project was promoted by the First World War Engagement Centres (Living LegaciesEveryday Lives in War, Voices of War and Peace, Gateways) and it also received coverage on the genealogical websites of Family Tree and Who Do You Think You Are Magazine? Here are some of the responses to Nigel and Larissa’s call for interest in their project.

‘Colour Cure Ward’, 1918 (Mary Evans Picture Library).

Lucinda Moore, Picture Researcher at London’s Mary Evans Picture Library contacted the project team to inform us about this fascinating advert for Lewis Berger and Sons paint that appeared in the British periodical Colour (March 1918). The advert is an illustrated representation of the Kemp-Prosser ‘colour cure’ ward at McCaul Hospital, Welbeck Street, London. Mr Kemp-Prosser believed that colours could affect people’s mental health and developed coloured environments that he believed could assist in the recovery of shell shock and nerve cases. Here the ceiling is ‘firmament blue’, the walls ‘sunlight yellow’, the woodwork ‘spring green’ and the floor and furniture ‘sunlight primrose’.  To read Lucinda’s full blog about the often forgotten story of Kemp-Prosser, please follow this link.

M.A. from Tasmania in Australia got in touch with the project team to tell us about her great grandfather, W.J. He served during the First World War in France. One of the tasks that he was given was collecting the dead and war wounded from the battlefield. His legs were badly affected from his time serving in the military. When he returned home to Wales after the war, he suffered with mental illness. He turned to alcohol and became violent towards his family. He was subsequently put into a private asylum in Pontypridd and is thought to have died in 1928. M.A.’s grandfather, grandmother and uncle emigrated to Australia in November 1947. M.A feels that it is important to draw attention to these often hidden histories of mental distress. If you know anything about the history of Pontypridd asylum, get in touch with Professor Nigel Hunt and he will pass on M.A.’s contact details to you.

Headway Cambridgeshire, a charity committed to supporting people with brain injuries has also contacted the team to tell us about their project, ‘Impact! Brain Injuries and World War I’.  Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, this project explores and interprets the history of people with brain injuries in Cambridgeshire as a result of the First World War. It is being led by a group of people with brain injuries that currently attend Headway Cambridgeshire. The work is part of their rehabilitation and also aims to improve public awareness of brain injury and its effects. The group are researching the untold history of the people in the Cambridgeshire Regiment who received brain injuries, the hospitals in Cambridge where they were treated and, where appropriate, their own families’ involvement in the First World War. They will use the information they unearth to commission a drama performance by a group of students from a local school. Illustration and Creative writing students from Anglia Ruskin University will develop a set of four posters that will be displayed on the back and interior of the Stagecoach buses in Cambridge. Radio station Cambridge 105 is running a regular podcast that will provide project progress updates. The Centre for Hidden Histories looks forward to hearing more.

Finally, the project team have heard from a number of researchers working on issues related to trauma and the First World War. Nancy Connors, who is an alumni of the University of Pennsylvania and has completed an MA in Social Work, is currently using the tools of social work in order to explore the development of individual social histories and community social capital in relation to specific female Belgian refugees and narratives of dislocation. Meanwhile, Michael Robinson (The University of Liverpool) has researched the postwar treatment of shell shocked veterans. He has explored how the British and Irish state responded to mentally ill veterans and what socio-economic and political factors influenced their treatment and recovery. Primary sources used by Michael include medical registers/data, individual pension files, state records, lunatic asylum records, medical journals and charities records. Read this fascinating blog by Michael which advocates for a four nations and global approach to the study of the First World War and shell shock.  Look out for his forthcoming book which has recently been contracted by Manchester University Press.