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The psychological impact of the Great War upon soldiers occupied the thoughts of the leading members of the Australasian Medical Congress in Brisbane held in August 1920. Papers on the use of psychoanalysis in the treatment of neurasthenia was  also noted by London’s Ernest Jones  in the first edition of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.  The keynote speaker was  John Springthorpe whose paper addressed the lack of psychological components in the syllabus at medical school. the resulting professional ignorance was catastrophic for Australian soldiers at the Front. The final statistics are not in as to how many returned home suffering from shell shock, or endured it for many years afterwards. Nor do we have information about the suicides that resulted although a search through the newspaper archives reveals reportage in 1916, of the suicide of a Mr Peter Hogan, a returned soldier and an inmate of Broughton Military Hospital, who threw himself under a train at Petersham railway station in Sydney.

Springthorpe told the Congress:

We sent men physically unfit to enter upon the strains for which they were temperamentally unsuited, and then back again when their prompt, even immediate breakdown was inevitable. Our medical officers at the front from their ignorance and inexperience, were unable to differentially diagnose the different psychical disabilities incurred, and even more unfit to teat them. Men were punished and even shot ( though not by us), for such disabilities as if they were crimes. After a time the cases got so bad – and dealt with in special hospitals, miles behind the lines but still under shell fire.

No stranger to controversy Springthorpe was among friends and supporters on this occasion. Introducing the Congress, its President, Dr William Taylor, noted that in past wars “old time diseases” had usually killed more than were wounded in the field. In the Great War disease  had been replaced by hellish devices of gas and flame throwing which, coupled with the issue of high explosives, renders ti difficult to conceive how anything had escaped destruction. The resulting inferno along with the misery of the trenches caused the nervous system to be worked up to the highest pitch of tension... Is it to be wondered at that a large number iof soldiers should suffer from neuroses of different kinds to a greater or lesser extent, purely functional in many cases and in others [adding] to the effects of injury. ( Taylor, Proceedings, p. 22).

To learn more about the way people thought about shell shock in war time Australia I typed the  words ‘shell shock’ into the search engine of the Australian National Library’s digitized newspaper collection : TROVE along with the dates: 1 January 1914 to 31 December 1916. I discovered not just  accounts of shell shock and its treatment by medical practitioners, but a seam  letters from soldiers in the field. These had  passed, somehow,  through the censor’s hands to reach their destination.  These were from Australian soldiers. In civilian life they were among the legions of  labourers, clerks and bankers who had enlisted to serve the Empire.  These letters were written to family and friends who forwarded them to the local newspaper editor editors for publication.  Most towns throughout New South Wales where I found most of these letters, had their own newspaper. Editors were well known to the community and, moreover, the folk who forwarded these letters to the paper knew that their townsfolk would be interested in the  progress of their men at war.

In these letters  home the men related their experiences at the battle for Pozieres from 23rd July 1916 until the 4th August, 1916. Often a way of assembling one’s mind after terrible events, the letters are vivid descriptions of thier battle experiences.  By the end of 1916 the term ‘shell shock’ was familiar to the soldiers and, increasingly, to the folk at home. ‘Shell Shock’ had emerged early and surprisingly. By December 1914, shortly after the war’s beginning, reports were reaching London that large numbers of soldiers had been evacuated from the British Expeditionary Force  with nervous and mental shock. (Shepherd, 2002: 21). Charles Myers, a psychologist who investigated the condition likened the condition – with its symptoms of paralysis, the loss of senses, loss of speech and/or  hearing – to hysteria ( Myers 1915).  Initially explained as a sign of weakness and fearfulness, if not degeneracy, shell shock was increasingly understood as a condition which observed neither rank or class. It was as difficult to treat as to understand  although generally, views evolved from an emphasis on physical interpretations at the commencement of the war to acceptance of psychological understandings at its end.

The Letters

Corporal Harold Glover was buried when a shell exploded close to him. He was dug out, unconscious for some hours As recorded by his doctor, John Springthorpe, a Melbourne Psychiatrist who was serving in Military hospitals,  Glover reached England suffering from ‘headaches, tremors, bad dreams, fainting attacks, cardiac pain and general nervous excitability’ (NAA B2455, GLOVER H A). His letter written to his brother was published in the Singleton Argus on 12 October 1916.

Words cannot describe what the situation was like… It was not warfare at all but simply murder. One need not be in the front line of the trenches to get wounded or killed: you get it in your dugoput or simply miles behind the lines…. The sight of the dead and wounded soldiers is nearly enough to make one go mad and thes tench from the dead horses and human bodies is absoletly unbearable at times. Big men cry and are absolutely broken- spirited with the scenes of bombardment… Gallipoli was never like this…

Fred Brown, a former clerk, wrote to his sister:

The dead, both British and German, were in many places piled waist high and when gaps were made in the parapet the biodies were thrown in to fill the gap along with empty rifle equipment and bomb boxes. A man who a few minutes previously was your mate was now a barricade for you. Amongst all the dreadful things of war, the most pitiful is a man who has lost his mental balance. You see dozens upon dozens of them without a scratch, yet ruined for life. ( Gloucester Advocate 1916)

Joseph Jackson, born in 1863, lowered his age to enlist in 1915. After the battle at Pozieres he was admitted to hospital in England and subsequently elected to return to Australia. His letter was published in the Maitland Mercury on 17th January 1917.

We had three go luny ( loony) from sehh shock… It was painful to realize how many good fellows had gone whilst the memory of the agonizing sights of the wounded linger with you… Talk about Hell. wll, if it’s any worse than Pozieres then I don’t want to assist old Nick.

According to Harry Bedford,  some men could not stand the strain. They went off their heads. Holding on until the end of their turn at the front was worst: it is then a man sees a chance of getting out safely and he begtins top think, “Onlu a few more hours to go: I wonder if I will get knocked”.

Springthorpe’s Intervention

At the Congress Springthorpe who had been  embattled with the Repatriation Department since June 1920 asserted that in the field hospitals  psychological treatment for these men was a poor relation to physical treatment.  The hospitals were not especially staffed, he explained. Many men were sent to places not equipped to treat these men. Many remained ‘for months, misunderstood and uncared for until finally disharged, often without any pension, because an uninformed board could find no disabilities’. When they returned to Australia the first arrivals were dismissed, without pension, as malingerers; the next batch dealt with as requiring isolation and restraint. And ever since until the last few weeks, all have been under the triple control of the Defence, Pensions and Repatriation ( Government Offices) without any nexus or comprehensive scheme. 

Legacies of war, apart from names engraved upon country town memorials throughout Australia, were the ongoing trauma of disability, the shattered minds of the traumatized soldiers which in turn tore apart the lives of many families over many years anf generations ( Larsson 2009).
Returned soldiers found they could not simply slip back into their old lives, nor could families make room for them as they had expected.


Charles Myers ( 1915) ‘A Contribution to the study of shell shock: being an account of three cases os loss of memory, vision, smell and taste, admitted into the Duchess of Westminster’s War Hospital, Le Touquet’, The Lancet, 2  February 1915, pp. 316-319.

1916 ‘OUR BOYS AT THE FRONT.’, Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 – 1954) , 12 October, p. 2, viewed 24 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article80448930

Gloucester Advocate 4 November 1916, p. 3.

Ben Shepherd ( 2002) A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century, London, Pimlico ( Random House).

John Springthorpe: Australasian Medical Congress, 1920, Section VIII: Neurology and Psychological Medicine, pp. 402-404.

‘John Springthorpe’s Memo on Cardiac and War Neurosis’,National Archives of Australia http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=4794937

Dr W Taylor,  Presidential Address, Australasian Medical Congress, 1920, p 22.

1916 ‘Returned Heroe’s Death.’, National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW : 1889 – 1954), 26 August, p. 2, viewed 24 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article158525008