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Trauma and Coping (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge)

The picture acts as a drop cap for the text. Purple letter T with a laurel wreath, representing the A to Z Challenge blogging event. Text below the logo says 'Blogging from A to Z April Challenge' and ''

The Lost Generation was basically a shell-shocked generation. Whether they had been in the war or not, these youth suffered from the unreconcilable clash between what society traditionally expected of them and what they had to deal with in the new world. 

Disillusionment, insecurities, and a tendency to live in the present without thinking too much about the future were the characteristics of the Lost Generation. If looked closely, these were some of the main reactions from veterans who came back from the war, many of whom suffered from what was then called shellshock and we call today PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

WWI and shell shock

Pinterest pin. The title reads, "The Lost Generation—Trauma and Coping" The black-and-white picture shows a hospital ward with two big windows at the end. A nurse stands at the end of the ward, leaning on a gurney as if about to push it. Two army officers stand on either side of her. Probably from WWI.

It was a common experience that returning soldiers had a hard time setting back into civilian life. 
Everybody expected them to. The war was over. They were home. Of course, they would simply pick up their life where they had left it off. Their nations and even their families expected this, and they were quite distressed when this didn’t happen. 

Many soldiers, even those who didn’t exhibit any other damage, suffered emotional withdrawal, memory lapses, and apathy. In certain serious cases, men also suffered from listlessness, shakes, and convulsions. 
These symptoms started to manifest soon after the beginning of the war and didn’t stop after it ended. Doctors were impotent to expand it. These were not unknown symptoms. They had been observed in previous wars too. However, the sheer number of soldiers who suffered from them in WWI was so staggering that doctors and military doctors had to pay special attention. 

The immediate answer was rooted in traditional Victorian understanding of character and masculinity. This stress was explained by a lack of character for the lower classes and terrible stress from the upper classes, revealing an obvious double standard. Slowly, doctors deduced it must be connected to the extreme circumstances of trench warfare, especially the constant exposure to shelling. 

It is estimated that between 80.000 and 200.000 men in the British Army alone suffered from shellshock, but the actual number is probably much higher. These are the number of men who were treated in the hospitals, but it’s likely that many men suffered from traumatic symptoms, like nightmares and distressing memories of war experience, but had found a personal way to cope with it well enough to avoid seeing a doctor. Besides, self-medication (which often involved the assumption of school, nicotine or other substances) was common enough even in the trenches. 

Besides, if a man could avoid seeing a doctor for this problem, he would. He would go to great lengths to avoid it because the stigma attached to these symptoms went too deep. His society and even his family would judge him as weak, a coward in the worst cases, for not being able to cope with the stress of war. 

The Great War and the shellshocked masculinity

A recruit having an eye test as part of a medical examination, 1917.
Imperial War Museum © IWM

The reason why many young men were so willing, even eager, to enrol is closely linked to Victoria’s ideals of healthy manhood as an expression of the warrior. The new characteristics of the mechanism war snowballed into a crisis of that ideal, as well as the inability to understand that crisis in different, new terms.

In only a few months, soldiers began to manifest strange nervous and mental symptoms. And this happened across the board, in every combatant army. Doctors in all countries noted that these symptoms were similar to well-established diagnostic categories such as hysteria, neurasthenia, and traumatic neurosis and mostly explained them as the result of concussion due to the prologued exposure to heavy artillery blast, which was indeed new to this war. Some, intuiting that the problem was probably deeper than that, explain the condition as the outcome of the clashing between the instinct of self-preservation and the desire to fulfil one’s duty, and so more of a psychological and emotional contention than a physical one.
This last was indeed a novel instance of how war impacted soldiers. It was the first germ of a diagnosis of PTSD as we understand it today. 

After the Great War, the idea of war as a noble, heroic enterprise was replaced by the idea that war was terrible and best avoided. The heroic warrior ceased to be the main vision of the soldier, to which the coward and the damaged soldier were added. 
Society at large and community on a smaller scale had to come to terms with these new, troublesome realities. Doctors tried to help, and some caused incredible advancement, but all of them had to face great, deep limitations. 

Even the most illuminated psychologists wanted to restore soldiers to self-control and manly ‘character’. They understood the crises as a temporary anomaly that could—and should—be mended. Even the most sophisticated psychological approaches drew heavily on concepts of self-control, self-reliance, and strength of character, all Victorian characteristics of masculine ideals. 
The main goal was always to get the patient to face his fears and understand that it was impossible to run away from them and, therefore, find the strength to overcome them. If they couldn’t, it was their personal failure. 

Trauma and Coping (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge) Shell-shocked by the Great War, the Lost Generation grappled with the conflict between societal norms and the challenges of a changed world #WWI #History #PTSD Share on X

The shellshocked Lost Generation

The Lost Generation, who received the ruins of the Great War as their inheritance, was – in many ways – a shellshocked generation who tried to self-medicate itself by keeping low expectations and enjoying what they could while they could. 

University Libraries – Montclair State University – “You are all a lost generation” : The Wandering Soldier in the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
Psychiatric Times – The First World War and the Legacy of Shellshock
The British Psychological Society – Masculinity, trauma and ‘shell-shock’
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Masculinities

Horizontal banner for the book "The Great War". On the left-hand side is the photo of a group of soldiers standing in a WWI trench. A Yellow button reads, "Go to Shop". On the right-hand side is a picture of a stake of two books, of which only the spine is visible, and the cover of a book standing upright, with the same group of soldiers standing in the trench. The stake of books stands against an olive green background. A big title in yellow reads "The Great War", and a smaller text reads "The updated ebook".


  • Kristin Cleage
    Posted April 24, 2024 at 02:41

    Self medicating seems to be quite prevalent today. I see many similarities between what you are describing in this series and what I see going on around me.

    • D.A.Cairns
      Posted April 24, 2024 at 20:31

      I think self medicating has always been prevalent, even before it was called that.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 3, 2024 at 18:33

      Sometimes, it’s the entire society that is shellshocked. I suspect we are in it, right now.

  • Locksley
    Posted April 24, 2024 at 15:33

    It’s sad that people have to go through that. I hope they got better.
    Locksley at George’s GP World

  • D.A.Cairns
    Posted April 24, 2024 at 20:35

    I cannot even imagine. I’ve just returned from a pre dawn ANZAC Day service. Hearing about those men who were slaughtered by machine guns at the failed Gallipoli landing on April 25, 1915, reminds me of how removed my experience of life has been from theirs. How the hell did the few who made it home cope with what they had witnessed? And how on earth did people expect them to come home and carry on as normal?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 29, 2024 at 12:20

      I know. I think people were very scared. Both the one who came back and the ones who were never there. The soldiers who came home were scared to remember. The people who stayed home were scared to know, because they didn’t know whether they could handle the damage and the difficulties.
      It’s just my guessing.
      It was a very difficult time, I think. More than we may think, I suspect.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted May 14, 2024 at 13:24

    Society’s idea of what is masculine, etc. seems to still be a reason why people don’t seek out help for mental health issues.

    Ronel visiting for T: My Languishing TBR: T
    Terrifying Tokoloshe

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