The Real trauma of the Great War

The First World War is often presented as a schism, a fracture, a discontinuity, in the fabric of history. This gives rise to the idea of a ‘lost innocence’, i.e. the pre-war (and in the case of Britain, the Edwardian) period.  But was it that simple? As all historians will tell you, Europe was already in a state of flux well before 1914, and many of the old certainties and orders were already being called into question.  Britain itself was in the grip of social and political unrest, both on the mainland and in Ireland, and things were bubbling under in many mainland European countries, including Russia, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Be that as it may, what sticks in our minds, and what stands behind all the remembrance, all the re-imagining, of the Great War are the twin motifs of tragedy and trauma; a whole generation wasted and psychically scarred for life.

Except, of course, this is one of the myths of the Great War.  Writers such as Fussell and Hymes point out that an important legacy of the war was its re-imagining and eventual mythologisation, especially (but by no means exclusively) by the subaltern officer class (Owen, Brooke, Sassoon, etc).1  Furthermore, as Hymes particularly emphasises, there was more than one version of this legacy, more than one version of the social and psychological impact of the Great War on British culture, and not everyone agreed with the idea of the war as schism, as discontinuity.

But isn’t it the case that a whole generation of young men (and women for that matter) was traumatised by the war, had their lives changed for ever?

There is little doubt that the Great War was a traumatic experience: not only for all those affected by the horrors of trench warfare, but for the wider society as well.  And it’s important to note that part of that trauma was the scale of the loss that occurred: not only on the Front itself but also back at home; for all those wives, mothers, girlfriends, sons and daughters who would never see their loved ones again. 2  And this sense of loss carried on long after the Armistice of 1918. In some ways, this loss still casts its long shadow today, almost a century after the war (officially) ended.

However, I think it’s crucial to understand what we mean by the term ‘trauma’ in this context, and this is where I think psychoanalysis can play an important role.

Although it is tempting to think of ‘shell shock’ or ‘war neurosis’ as the main psychoanalytic legacy of the First World War, this would, in my view, be a serious mistake.  To start with, although a lot of the psychiatrists and doctors who encountered and treated ‘shell shock’ were aware of psychoanalytic ideas, and in some cases, were prepared to use them, Freud’s discoveries were by no means universally welcomed or accepted.  Even those doctors who were prepared to accept some aspects of Freudian thinking rejected others.

For example, and as I’ve noted elsewhere, W.H.R .Rivers was very interested in his patients’ dreams, but rejected the idea that his patients’ traumas were sexual in origin.  In fact, Rivers argued that his patients’ traumas were rooted in the present or very recent past, i.e. their experiences in the trenches.3 The key point here is that psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapies have never held that much sway in the actual treatment of ‘shell shock’, ‘war neurosis’, and, later on, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Where ‘shell shock/war neurosis’ does matter, however, is that it highlights the whole question of trauma, and especially trauma as a meaningless experience.

Ultimately, for most people the war, the endless carnage and suffering, made no sense at all.   Hence the continuing attempts, even today, to try and make sense of it, to try and put it in some meaningful context and perspective.  What psychoanalysis can do is to explore the nature of this trauma in more detail – and to recognise the limits of trying to make sense of trauma.  The key question here is  whether it makes sense to speak of the war itself as a trauma; or whether it’s more that specific individuals were traumatised by their experiences in the war.

If it’s a case of particular individuals being traumatised by their experiences, e.g. those suffering from ‘shell shock’, then this suggests that even though the war was a terrible experience for everyone, and for some an experience they were never able to come to terms with, it is still possible to make sense of it, to be able to explain why it happened, and why all the suffering and carnage was, in some way, ‘necessary’.  On the other hand, if the war itself can be seen as trauma then this suggests that there is something about it that escapes meaning.

There are parallels here with the Holocaust: some have argued that it is simply impossible to explain it; whereas other – both survivors and historians – have tried to make sense of it.   However, one of the problems with trying to make sense of an experience like the Great War or the Holocaust is that there is always something that slips away, something that escapes meaning.  Which means we are driven to continually try and ‘fix’ or ‘pin down’ the meaning which keeps evading us.  And this ‘something’ that escapes meaning is what fixates us, captivates us, fascinates us – and is what keeps the war going.

What I’m getting at here is that the meaning of ‘The War’ serves as an objet a, a lost object, so we are perpetually driven to try and establish a ‘final’, ‘definitive’, ‘absolute’ meaning. As this is an impossibility, all that happens is that the fascination of ‘The War’ continues ad infinitum.

  1. Paul Fussell (2000) The Great War and modern memory. Oxford, Oxford University Press; Hynes, S. (1990) A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. London, The Bodley Head Ltd. []
  2. This is something Juliet Nicolson chronicles in her moving book The Great Silence: Nicolson, J. (2009) The Great Silence 1918-1920  Living in the Shadow of the Great War. London, John Murray.  Nicolson focuses on a very specific, short period: that between the Armistice of November 1918 and the internment of the Unknown Soldier in November 1920. []
  3. []