For we Yanks, HBO has a new documentary tonight called Wartorn: 1861 to 2010, executive produced by James Gandolfini. Reviewed by Edward Copeland here.
It’s an important story that looks at our returning veterans today, and since the Civl War, and sees what kind of challenges they bring back with them from the battlefields, from witnessing the very worst that humans can do to humans. One challenge is continuing trauma. From the HBO website:
“Civil War doctors called it hysteria, melancholia, and insanity. During the First World War it was known as shell shock. By World War ll, it became battle fatigue. Today, it is clinically knows as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a crippling anxiety that results from exposure to life-threatening situations such as combat.”
Popular culture has captured some of this truth, including William Wyler’s 1946
The Best Years of Our Lives. When Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell return home from the “popular war” they each struggle with nightmares and alcohol.
The Shell Shocked Lord Peter
An early mainstream depiction of shell shock was from Dorothy L. Sayers and her creation Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is seen as a foolish ass in some ways, but we learn that he was severely injured by artillery fire near Caudry, France, and suffered a complete breakdown when he was demobbed. The foolish demeanor is his way of coping with the shell shock.
In Whose Body, the first Wimsey novel, his overwork leads him to hallucinate he is back in the trenches. Luckily his manservant Bunter is nearby:
"Put that light out, damn you!" said Wimsey. "Listen—-over there-—listen—can't you hear it?"
"It's nothing, my lord," said Mr. Bunter, hastily getting out of bed and catching hold of his master; "it's all right, you get to bed quick and I'll fetch you a drop of bromide. Why, you're all shivering—you've been sitting up too late."
"Hush! no, no—it's the water," said Lord Peter with chattering teeth, "it's up to their waists down there, poor devils. But listen! can't you hear it? Tap, tap, tap—they're mining us—but I don't know where—I can't hear—I can't. Listen, you! There it is again—we must find it—we must stop it . . . Listen! Oh, my God! I can't hear—I can't hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can't they stop the guns?"
"Oh, dear!" said Mr. Bunter to himself. "No, no—it's all right, Major—don't you worry."
"But I hear it," protested Peter.
"So do I," said Mr. Bunter stoutly; "very good hearing, too, my lord. That's our own sappers at work in the communication trench. Don't you fret about that, sir."
Lord Peter grasped his wrist with a feverish hand.
"Our own sappers," he said; "sure of that?"
"To be sure they will," said Mr. Bunter, "and very nice, too. You just come and lay down a bit, sir—they've come to take over this section."
"You're sure it's safe to leave it?" said Lord Peter.
In a later novel, The Unpleasantness at the Belladonna Club, begins on Armistice Day, 1928, and the plot revolves around the fact that for the 2 minutes of silence at 11:00 am on November 11, nobody moves, so the killer can get to his target unseen.
It’s also notable for this exchange between Wimsey and Captain Fentiman from the war:
George: "I wish to God Jerry had put me out with the rest of ‘em. What’s the good of coming through for this sort of thing? What’ll you have?”
Wimsey: “Dry Martini” Cheer up. All this Remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth. However, it won’t do to say so. . . .How are things going for you?
George: “Oh rotten as usual. Tummy all wrong and no money. What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his inside gassed out, and loses his job, and all they give him is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income-tax.”
* * * * *
What’s interesting about this is that Sayers is the early Christie. Her novels are murder mysteries, not Zola-like realistic drama. But her characters ring true in many ways, and such was the reality of the fate of the returning servicemen from World War 1.
It is sad and terrible and seemingly inevitable that a similar fate awaits some of our own service people. One tangible way to help is to contribute to Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust and other such organizations that helps today’s veterans.