Shell shocked

War Neuroses: Netley 1917, Seale Hayne Military Hospital 1918, from

I’ve been reading (well, skimming through) Philip Hoare’s Spike Island, which is a poetic, not to say rococo history of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, Hampshire. This is a building with a rich cultural history centring around its role during the First World War, where it was home to many casualties of the war, including Wilfred Owen, and became well known for treating victims of shell shock.

You’ll find many an account of the experiments and therapies for shellshock at Netley and elsewhere, from the sentimental to the Freudian. What concerns us here is the contemporary film record. One of the most notable films of the First World War, by what ever criteria you care to mention, is War Neuroses: Netley 1917, Seale Hayne Military Hospital 1918, made by Pathé (British branch) in 1918, which Hoare covers in some detail. War Neuroses shows the psychotherapeutic treatment of shell shock victims at Netley and Seale Hayne (Devon) military hospital, featuring the treatments undertaken by Doctors Arthur Hurst and J.L.M. Symns of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The catalogue of the Wellcome Trust Moving Image and Sound Collection describes the film thus:

Shows the symptomatology of “shell-shock” in 18 British “other rankers” and its treatment by two leading R.A.M.C. neurologists in two British military hospitals towards the end of the First World War. Captions tell us the men’s names, rank, medical condition, details of their symptoms and how long it took to complete the cure, which in one case was in two and a half hours. Clinical features shown include a variety of ataxic and “hysterical” gaits; hysterical paralyses, contractures and anaesthesias; facial ties and spasms; loss of knee and ankle-jerk reflexes; paraplegia; “war hyperthyrodism”; amnesia; word-blindness and word-deafness. Although there are no precise details of the kind of treatment given, apart from the description ‘cured and re-educated’ we do see a little physiotherapy and hypnotic suggestion in treatment, and of ‘cured’ men undertaking farm-work, drill and a mock battles entitled ‘Re-enacting the Battle of Seale Hayne / Convalescent war neurosis patients’.

At least three versions of the film exist. There are copies at the Wellcome, the BFI National Archive and the Imperial War Museum, but the ones to draw your attention to here are the versions held by British Pathe (currently managed by ITN). Pathé were the original producers, but not everyone might think to find it in the British Pathe online newsreel library, but there it is – or there they are – available for free download, albeit in low resolution.

Private Ross Smith (above), facial spams, and Private Read, hysterical gait, swaying movement and nose-wiping tic

There are five parts of the films on the British Pathe site: War Neuroses Version A reel 1, War Neuroses Version A reel 2, War Neuroses version B reel 1, War Neuroses version B reel 2 and Wonderful Shell Shock Recovery. For some impenetrable reason only two come up if you type in the words ‘war neuroses’ into the search box; type ‘netley’ instead and you’ll get all five. As indicated, there are two versions available (Wonderful Shell Shock Recovery is a fragment repeating scenes from the other films). The different versions, however, appear to be simply re-edits of the same material, with Version B being the most complete, with opening titles and scenes of some patients that Version A lacks. In its fullest form the film last around 25 mins. It is necessary to download the films (i.e. they won’t play instantly), with the site requiring you to fill out personal details before you do so.

The film demonstrates the symptoms of those suffering from shell shock, and are often quite heartbreaking. Private Preston, aged 19, we are told suffers from ‘Amnesia, word blindess and word deafness, except the the word “Bombs!”‘ He is shown sitting up in bed talking to one of the doctors, the key word is spoken, and immediately hides under the bed, and only reluctantly coming out again. Private Meek, aged 23, suffers ‘complete retrograde amnesia, hysterical paralysis, contractures, mutism and universal anaesthesia’. We see him seated in a wheelchair outside the hospital, legs rigid, leaning sideways, mvoing in awkward jerks and biting his thumb, while a nurse attends to him. It is a characteristic of War Neuroses that we see see before-and-after cases. So, after unseen treatment, we next meet Private Meek walking stiffly towards a group of patients weaving baskets (his peace time job), and later walking completely normally.

There are numerous such examples, the men shown with various forms of uncontrollable nervous spasms, next shown moving more or at less at ease, their return to normality sometimes illustrated by their performing tasks around the hospital as occupational therapy. One of the most distressing sequences is that of an unnamed patient (illustrated at the top of this post) suffering from hysterical pseudo-pseudohypertrophic muscular paralysis. We see the man in a dormitory, dressed only in a loin cloth. He walks with pathetic, angular awkwardness in a circle, before falling down, unable to get up without huge struggle. Next we see him in hospital uniform, walking calmly towards the camera. The reassuring scenes of rehabilitation seem almost as disturbing as the scenes of affliction. How can such mental wounds be healed so easily?

The purpose of the physical and psychotherapeutic treatment was not simply to cure, but to make the men literally fighting fit once more. Four-fifths of men who had been entering hospital suffering from shell shock were unable to return to military duty; the military authorities wanted to reverse this. What happened to the named and nameless soldiers seen in War Neuroses? One hopes fervently that none were returned to the battlefield. So what to make of the final scene from the film, where patients are shown taking part in a re-enacted battle scene: ‘The Battle of Seale Hayne, directed, photographed and acted by convalescent war neurosis patients’? Innovative psychodrama aimed at a final cure, or rehabilitation for war? Have we seen an actuality record, or a dramatisation of recovery to satisfy the wishes of those who chose to commission the film?

I don’t know enough of the history, either of the film (no one knows who the cameraman was, or much at all about the film’s production) or of the treatment of shell shock. It’s a subject that some have written about in great depth, yet it seems a subject where we still have much to learn. The film – which I urge you to see – provides no answers, only asks searching questions. Which is what films are there to do, whether they realise it or not.

Update (April 2009): A higher resolution copy of the film is available from the Wellcome Trust site, at, as complete film and as four segments, plus a detailed catalogue record. Also, British Pathe is no longer managed by ITN Source.