Whilst working on this WWI centenary project I have been surprised by how few ‘degrees of separation’ there appear to be between some of the stories. For example, the link between Sydney Legacy and where I live (Week 32), and between the Schwenke family property at Gilgai and my mother’s hidden past (Week 49).
As I near the end of my year pledged to seeking out WWI stories honouring our grandfathers’ service, I want to talk about “shell shock”, what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. And another coincidental connection between my partner Stelios’ nursing training and my grandfather Harold Lilja.
In 2004 as part of his Enrolled Nurse Certificate IV qualification, Stelios undertook mental health training at ‘H’ Ward, Rozelle Psychiatric Hospital, often simply referred to as Callan Park. One of his colleagues was assigned to the adjacent ‘A’ Ward, dedicated to ex-military personnel. Stelios heard stories of how these veterans, many now very old men, would still refer to each other by rank, would still want to march up and down the ward, and say things like “straighten up sergeant”. He did another rotation through ‘H’ ward at Callan Park when he completed his Nursing Degree in 2006, when only a few patients were left just before the hospital formally closed in 2007.
In 2017 I applied to receive a copy of my grandfather’s WWII service record. Imagine my surprise when I received the copy and found a transcript of a letter dated 3 May 1983 from the then Minister for Defence, Kim Beazley, addressed to Harold at ‘A’ Ward Rozelle Hospital!
Harold was then 89 years old and suffering some form of mental illness had been admitted to the hospital where he wrote a letter on 7 March 1983 requesting formal recognition for his gallantry during WWI more than 65 years earlier. He died later the same year. Presumably his experiences on the Western Front had never left him.
Did shell shock during WWI contribute to later episodes of mental illness? Did it contribute to the break-up of his first marriage to my grandmother Beryl?
According to Wikipedia the term “shell shock” came into use in WWI to describe the effect on soldiers of the intensity of bombardment and fighting that produced a “helplessness appearing variously as panic and being scared, or flight, an inability to reason, sleep, walk or talk”. War correspondent Phillip Gibbs wrote of shell shock:
Something was wrong. They put on civilian clothes again and looked to their mothers and wives very much like the young men who had gone to business in the peaceful days before August 1914. But they had not come back the same men. Something had altered in them. They were subject to sudden moods, and queer tempers, fits of profound depression alternating with a restless desire for pleasure. Many were easily moved to passion where they lost control of themselves, many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening.
It seems that the concept of shell shock was variously interpreted as either a physical or psychological injury, or simply as a lack of moral fibre. It has been identified as the signature injury of WWI, with as many as 40% of the casualties from the Battle of the Somme in 1916 suffering from shell shock.
Even though the number of cases grew it remained poorly understood medically and psychologically, with some doctors believing it was the result of hidden physical damage to the brain, with shock waves from bursting shells creating a cerebral lesion that caused symptoms; and an alternative view being that shell shock was an emotional, rather than a physical, injury. Although the Battle of Passchendaele “generally became a byword for horror”, by 1917 the British Army had developed methods to reduce shell shock by giving a few days’ rest to men who started to show shell-shock symptoms. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, during 1917 shell shock was “entirely banned as a diagnosis in the British Army, and mentions of it were censored, even in medical journals.”
Nevertheless, again from Wikipedia: “There were so many officers and men suffering from shell shock that 19 British military hospitals were wholly devoted to the treatment of cases. Ten years after the war, 65,000 veterans of the war were still receiving treatment for it in Britain. In France it was possible to visit aged shell shock victims in hospital in 1960.
Recent research by Johns Hopkins University has found that the brain tissue of combat veterans who have been exposed to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) exhibit a pattern of injury in the areas responsible for decision making, memory and reasoning. This evidence has led the researchers to conclude that shell shock may not only be a psychological disorder, since the symptoms exhibited by sufferers from the first world war are very similar to these injuries”.
For more information on shell shock visit Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shell_shock
According to State Archives and Records: “Situated adjacent to Callan Park Mental Hospital, No 13 Auxiliary Military Hospital, Broughton Hall was used from 1915 for the treatment of returned soldiers suffering from shell shock and other nervous disorders. The hospital was supervised by two medical officers from the Department of the Inspector General of the Insane, but was administered by the Australian Army Medical Corps. In this way military powers of detention could be used if necessary, instead of burdening returned soldiers with certification and its associated stigma.”
Since the closure of Rozelle Psychiatric Hospital in 2007, many of the unoccupied buildings and the heritage gardens are undergoing demolition by neglect. For more information on Callan Park and its history, go to: http://www.callanpark.com/
According to the Department of Defence website: All Australians, including ADF members, have the potential to be exposed to traumas that may contribute to the development of PTSD. However the rates of both military and non-military related traumas are higher in the ADF than in the Australian community. From the findings of the 2010 ADF Mental Health Prevalence and Wellbeing Study, it has been estimated that 90% of ADF members have experienced at least one potentially traumatic event at some time in their life, compared to 73% of an age and employment matched sample of the Australian community.
It is estimated that approximately 8.3% of ADF members will have experienced PTSD in the last 12 months, which is significantly higher than in the Australian community (5.2%). In particular, ADF males report a greater rate of PTSD compared with the general community (8.1% versus 4.6%).
For more information on post-traumatic stress disorder, its symptoms and treatment visit these websites: