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

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: Nigel.Hunt@nottingham.ac.uk and L.Allwork@derby.ac.uk