From the trenches to the present day

Ella Rhodes reports from a one-day symposium ‘Stories of Psychology: War and Its Aftermath’ held on 8 October.
Embedded video (enter URL): 

In the centenary year of the start of the First World War, the fourth annual Stories of Psychology symposium explored the role of psychologists during and after war, the effects of warfare on children and the emergence of a Jungian theory of inner and external conflict. The event, organised by the BPS History of Psychology Centre, was held at the University of London’s Senate House and convened by Dr Alan Collins (University of Lancaster). It opened with a talk from military psychologist, and the Society’s President Elect, Jamie Hacker Hughes (Anglia Ruskin University.)

Professor Hacker Hughes tracked the 99 years of psychologists’ involvement with the military since the start of the First World War. He began with Charles Myers, a medical doctor who trained at Barts and Cambridge and took part in the famous Torres Straits expedition. He, among others such as William Halse Rivers, was at the forefront of treating shell shock during the war. Professor Hacker Hughes then went on to discuss how psychologists have been involved with the military since 1914.

He outlined the work of War Office Selection Boards where psychologists collaborated with military officers and psychiatrists in the selection of officer candidates. This increased role of psychologists in the military, however, did not sit well with some in the services. Even Winston Churchill himself said of their work: ‘It is very wrong to disturb large numbers of healthy, normal men and women by asking the kind of odd questions in which the Psychiatrists specialize.’

Later on, towards the Second World War, Professor Hacker Hughes said, psychologists were also involved in the ergonomic design of control panels in planes, and had a greater involvement in the selection and testing of candidates for the armed forces. In 1941 the War Office set up the Army’s Directorate of Service Personnel which included 19 psychologists, all of whom were uniformed officers, who were involved in designing tests for general candidates as well as more specific roles. In more recent times, Professor Hacker Hughes pointed out that he was responsible for the creation of a new clinical psychologist cadre within the Royal Army Medical Corps, leading to the recruitment of the Army's first uniformed clinical psychologist, Captain Duncan Precious, who was in fact among the delegates to the symposium.

Next, Professor Edgar Jones (Institute of Psychiatry) outlined evidence that the huge numbers of shell shock victims during World War I changed the landscape of mental health and the treatment of psychological distress – but that these effects soon dissipated following the end of the war. Professor Jones said that before the start of the war psychiatry was dominated by the asylum system, and for the few psychologists who were working in British universities at the outbreak of war in 1914, explaining psychological distress was not their major interest, instead they were much more concerned with developing experimental investigations using measures such as reaction time.

During the war, Professor Jones said, very large numbers of men recruited to combat were exposed to the dangers of frontline warfare, and what was soon termed ‘shell shock’ began to emerge, which led to an increased focus on treatment. Professor Jones’ research has revealed that there were peaks of shell-shock cases following major battles, but there were also peaks when individuals had served for 12 months, 18 months and 24 months. Professor Jones said that this appeared to indicate that soldiers used shell shock as a way to negotiate being moved away from the front line at times when they might reasonably have felt they had done their bit.

When shell shock began to emerge, those few psychologists working in British universities, many of whom were medically qualified, were asked to turn their attention to the issue. Confronted with shell shock as a major and distressing problem, these psychologists began to develop their ideas about psychological explanations of mental breakdown. The Maudsley Hospital, for example, opened in 1916, where physician and psychologist William Brown was the first resident medical officer. Professor Jones said: ‘He wanted to create a place where people wanted to get better, quite the opposite of an asylum.’ Overall, the experiences of shell shock set in place an optimism that psychological disorders could be cured by psychological means. Some further progress was made after the end of the war. Cassel Hospital was opened which was designed to take the lessons learned during the war and apply it to the general public. But by the 1920s the expected breakthroughs in treatment had not arrived and there was no sustained practical change. Professor Jones concluded that though ‘a horrific price was paid in terms of casualties’, it sadly did not secure immediate long-term changes to mainstream clinical practice.

During the lunch interval delegates had the chance to see an exhibition of books about psychology and the First World War from Senate House library’s historical collections. Senate House Library, where the BPS official library resides, also facilitated today’s symposium.

After lunch, Andrea von Hohenthal (University of Freiburg) presented some initial findings from her doctoral research into the differences in the development of psychology and the treatment of shell shock in Germany and England during the First World War. These differences, she said, included the diagnosis of what the British called shell shock, which in Germany was known as war hysteria. Whereas British soldiers were often treated near the front lines, German soldiers were more often sent home to recuperate, where medical services in many areas of Germany were better organised for dealing with a large number of shell-shocked soldiers. She also pointed that though a variety of treatments were employed in both Britain and Germany, including psychoanalysis and electric currents, psychotherapy was more frequently used by British psychologists to treat shell-shock victims than their counterparts in Germany.

Next up, Professor Sonu Shamdasani (University College London) looked into Jung’s premonitions of war, just before the outbreak of the First World War, and how these helped him to develop ideas into collective and individual conflict. Professor Shamdasani outlined several premonitions Jung experienced. In the first he saw a flood of red engulfing Germany, France and the rest of Europe. Jung feared he was losing his mind and so began on a long period of self-reflection and investigation.

When war broke out, Jung concluded that he was not insane, but his waking dreams or visions were in response to the wider collective subconscious. Jung saw war as largely a symptom of unresolved individual conflicts. Only by resolving individual conflicts, some of which he believed arose from the shared collective unconscious, could war be avoided. This was consistent with his idea that the transformation of individual was necessary for the transformation of the collective and, even more ambitiously, that ultimately psychotherapy could hold the solution to what was seen as the decline of the West and the ills of modernity.

The final speaker, Historian and sociologist Professor Michael Roper (University of Essex), is currently conducting interviews with people who were born between the First and Second World Wars and had fathers who had served in the military, to discover the impact of war on families, children and relationships. While the impact of the war on combatants has been much researched, the impact of the war on the children and families of war veterans has been comparatively neglected. Yet as Professor Roper’s interviews show, the war did have a lasting impact on the children of veterans.

Although he is yet to carry out systematic analysis on his interviews, Professor Roper presented some of his moving findings from children whose fathers were injured during in the First World War. ‘Many [of the interviewees] felt they grew up without paternal presence, they had fathers but had not been fathered,’ he said.

Professor Roper shared some of the interviews he had conducted, in one the interviewee spoke of having missed out due to having a father who had been disabled during the war, the interviewee said: ‘Now, I had a father, but could never be taken as a father in the full sense of the word … engaging. There was nobody to say, you know, “Come along, I’ll show you how to fish”, you know, “Let’s go and have a kick about with the football”.’

Professor Roper also pointed out how some of the interviewees and their families showed the stiff-upper-lip attitude that was seemingly typical in the interwar period, one of his interviewees said, following the death of her brother, she had great difficulty showing her emotion, she said: ‘I have great difficulty in crying, I always have had. As a kid I had. But I can remember waking up next morning, every morning for ages after, [her brother died] and my cheeks were stiff with salt.’ Professor Roper added: ‘The emotional code of interwar Britain was very different. Emotional strength was a hallmark of interwar culture.’

The Stories of Psychology symposium has become a fixture in the BPS calendar and this year’s event was extremely well attended by an appreciative audience of more than 100 people. Peter Dillon-Hooper, who manages the History of Psychology Centre and organised the event said: ‘It was really pleasing to see a hall full of people, psychologists and non-psychologists, engaging with some of the fascinating stories that psychology has to tell. It is our mission to continue to bring the sometimes neglected history of the discipline to the attention of as wide an audience as possible. So, we’ll be back next year with a fifth symposium.’

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber


I read the report about the symposion “Stories of Psychology: War and its Aftermath” by Eila Rhodes with interest. I struggle with a result of the research of Andrea von Hohenthal (University of Freiburg) mentioned there. She stated as an early outcome of her doctoral research that shell shock in England was known as hysteria in Germany and that this would make a difference. However, this difference did not really exist because according to the Royal Army Medical Corps, there were four other war neuroses besides shellshock: hysteria, neurasthenia, disordered action of the heart and later in 1917 not yet diagnosed (nervous). As in Germany and Austria, hysteria and neurasthenia included the same symptoms and lead to basically the same treatment but to different etiological assumptions. The symptoms in all three countries mostly led to a diagnosis of hysteria for rankings whereas neurasthenia was reserved for officers (Young, 1995). Hysteria, as the Grecian origin of the word reveals, was seen as a rather female mental disorder of internal origins and neurasthenia from outside, tough circumstances. It seems obvious that back then it would have been difficult to speak of officers allegedly suffering from hysteria. Most of them were male aristocrats, as were half of the ancestors of the von Hohenthal family as were half of the ancestors of Andrea von Hohenthal, whose inherited traits were seen to make them superior to ordinary people and qualify them to become military leaders. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that history is the lie we are agreed on, while a graffiti in Berlin reads that the borders are not between peoples but between above and below. Sometimes, science unintentionally demonstrates that both quotations are not entirely wrong.

Heiko Boettcher MBPsS

YOUNG, A. 1995. The Harmony of Illusions. Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Dissorder, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.