Survivors….of a kind….

Walter Reed Hospital Veterans from the Great War

Walter Reed Hospital Veterans from the Great War

The First World War was as it’s name suggests, a titanic thing. It was so monumental both in terms of human sacrifice and geography, that sometimes we as a species fail to grasp a subtle truth. Not all those who war returned and not all those who returned really fully returned.

But many did.

And a good many led normal, happy lives after. A visiting academic recently gave a lecture in NUI Galway where she touched on the matter that not everyone who went to war returned suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. Now while this may be somewhat of an oversimplification of a wider phenomenon (the substitution of PTSD as a meta grouping for ALL forms of stress), there is an argument behind it.  While very few veterans of the conflict had positive memories of it, bad memories do not necessarily equate to stress. That is not to say that they were not subject to stresses, merely that for some the stresses were not insurmountable and they were able to continue and live content, full lives afterwards.

Image from PA, Daily Mail

Unfortunately there were those for whom their experiences were simply too much; their minds could not take it and they never returned to their families, certainly not in spirit. While the accompanying image is somewhat graphic, it is a reminder that for decades after the conflict had ended, indeed even during the Second World War, hundreds of men languished in mental torment in sanitoria and hospitals, still bearing the mental scars of the stresses induced.

British Pathé Newsreel

This link to the BBC tells the stories of five figures who were able to move on with their lives: Clement Atlee (future British PM), Ernest Hemingway, Baroness de t’Serclaes, Victor Sylvester and Sir Frederick Banting (inventor of insulin). Now whether or not these people were always destined for greatness, or whether it took the crucible of war and injury to ignite that passion within them is another story, another argument.

What we can ascertain is that their service in the war affected their lives greatly and that they did not emerge unchanged. I would encourage you to read their stories and as you do try to determine for yourself would Atlee always have gone on to be the force he was through sheer personality alone, would Elsie Knocker have tried so hard during the second great conflict to assail Britain in twenty years, would Ernest Hemingway have written with such passion had he not been wounded?

Life is full of these questions.

And History is the study of Life.

About eamonntgardiner

I am a PhD Student at the National University of Ireland, Galway. I am conducting research into links between wartime traumatic-neurosis and evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst British First World War veterans serving as Auxiliary Policemen in Ireland during the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921. I have previously conducted research into local Irish Volunteer/Old IRA units in Munster as well as British responses to popular insurgencies in areas they administered. I have previously published a book on the British Counterinsurgency responses to the IV/IRA conflict in Ireland, 1919-1921, entitled 'Dublin Castle and the Anglo-Irish War: Counter Insurgency and Conflict.' I have also published papers on various aspects of that war and also on other insurgencies. I write a regular blog on those and other related matters, which can be read at My research interests include Feminism and De-Colonialisation/Post-Colonialism, Insurgency, Police and Military Histories, Institutional Histories. Subaltern Studies, International History of the 20th Century, Modern Irish History, Historiography, History of Conflict, Peace Keeping/Enforcement/Protectorates, Spheres of Influence, Hegemonic Theories, Old and New Terrorism.
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