To commemorate the centenary of the Armistice that ended the First World War, this is my writing imagining myself as an Australian journalist during World War 1 observing what the war had done to the soldiers mentally and psychologically.
This year, 1916, Australia – as one of the dominion of the British Empire – is already in the third year at war with Germany.
While thousands of Australian men, with great enthusiasm, initially rushed to volunteer to join the Australian forces, the sheer number of Australian casualties, the falling number of men stepping forward to take up military service has led to the Conscription Referendum that was held and defeated in October this year.
The gruesome effect of war not only is felt by the family and community griefs for the fallen soldiers but also on the returned service men who are disabled physically and psychologically. Some of these men, mentally damaged, can never re-integrate into a post-service life in the society successfully as expected.
The newspaper had me sent to two Australian hospitals overseas to learn what has happened to these ex–servicemen.
The first hospital that I visited was the First Australian General Hospital that was located in various buildings in Cairo, Egypt. All war casualties come here – diseases, physical injuries and shellshock.
I came to learn what shellshock meant. It is a medical term for the mental breakdown among hospitalised men and officers caused by exposure to exploding shells.
I met Arthur who lied in bed in a foetal position, eyes half-close, nervousness displayed on his face.
Sitting on his bed, Shaun held his head in his hands, crying. He kept saying: “I was scared but I was supposed not to be scared!”
Brian was wandering around the ward staring into space. I asked Brian what his army rank was but he could not answer me. He didn’t recall even where he was born and what his mother and father’s names are.
At the sound of a nurse dropping her metal tray on the floor, Bradley who was fidgeting with a small toy near the entrance door came running down to his bed and hid underneath it.
The head of the hospital, Dr. John provided little sympathy to these shellshocked soldiers and was eager to get these men back to the battlefields because according to him, the ‘malaise’ was obviously a retreat from the war. He quoted some military commander saying that these sick men lack discipline and loyalty and should be shot for malingering and cowardice.
Passing by Arthur’s bed, Dr John cursed him ‘Go ‘ide yerself, you bloody little coward!’.
Dr John told me that he used Electric Shock Treatment where an electric current being applied to various body parts to cure the symptoms of shellshock. For example, the electric current could be delivered to the pharynx of a soldier suffering from mutism or to the spine of a man who had problems walking.
Another method he told me was to give the patients anesthetic to calm their nerves.
I was horrified to learn that Dr John also tried a controversial treatment consisted of “finding out the main likes and dislikes of patients and then ordering them to abstain from the former and apply themselves diligently to the latter”. Patients who had a fear of noise were given rooms looking onto a main road, men who had been teachers or writers before the war were refused access to the library and men who feared being alone were put into isolation.
Before leaving Dr John’s hospital, I asked him about the rate of servicemen cured
but he only beat around the bush and gave me a vague answer: “We are working very hard to get these men well as soon as possible. You see, men are born brave.”
Next, I arrived at Third Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Dartford, England. This is a big hospital with 1400 beds and is for the treatment of war-related nerves and neuroses.
Here, I came across other cases of the illness.
Anna – a hospital nurse – pointed out Steve to me. Steve had hysterical tics of his own facial muscles because he kept being haunted by the faces of the enemies who he had bayoneted them in the face.
In addition, Anna took me to see Justin who complained of having stomach cramps. Actually, there was nothing wrong with Justin’s stomach. He often knifed his seized enemies in the abdomen and now was re-living his foes’ pain.
I learnt the story of Matthew who was starving himself to death. He was the one whose nightmares of seeing the face of the German that he had bayoneted, with its horrible gurgle and grimace, kept coming up during the day and night.
As it is in the rear areas, the hospital devotes more time to learn about and treat victims of shellshock with gentler approach. The doctors here explained to me that shellshock also occurred in men who had never come under fire, even in men who never had been within hearing range of exploding shells. It equally affects both officers and regular soldiers.
Every day, a patient would have a session with a doctor during which they would discuss his war experiences. This form of therapy on shellshock victims can sometimes take patients years to recover and very few returned to the war.
Hypnosis, and rest are also recommended as other ways to treat patients at this hospital.
When the ‘wounded in mind’ are too severely ill, they are transferred back to Australia to be discharged from service or to spend time in lunatic asylums or private mental institutions.
I still can vividly recall the spine-chilling emotion when I was attacked in a dark alley. Since then I become paranoid to walk alone at night.
Everyone – even men – has a ‘breaking point’: weak or strong, courageous or cowardly – war frightened everyone witless…However, there’s still a belief that not all of these men are breaking down because of the horrid of war but because there’s an underlying weakness in their personality. No-one can describe the mix of shame, sadness, fear and anger experienced by the war-damaged.