The First World War signified a change in the conduct of war. War was now waged on an unprecedented scale against both military forces and civilian populations. The mass mobilisation of military firepower led to untold devastation on the battlefields, campaigns which left millions dead.
Emerging from this ‘total war’ were cases of shell shock, soldiers psychologically affected by the harsh reality of 20th century warfare. Still a relatively new diagnosis, the first use of the term shell shock was believed to have been recorded in the Lancet in 1915 when Charles Myers, Captain in the Royal Army medical Corps, published his article ‘A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock. Being an Account of Three Cases of Loss of Memory, Vision, Smell and Taste, Admitted into the Duchess of Westminster’s War Hospital, Le Touquet.’There are only a handful of surviving records from the psychiatric hospitals in Birmingham dating from the First World War. In the records of All Saints Hospital are reception orders for those admitted to the hospital. These include ‘Service’ patients who were members of the armed forces who had experienced attacks of a psychological kind that had left them with symptoms including those of hallucinations, apathy, loss of memory or understanding, restlessness and the inability to answer simple questions. In some cases, these men already had pre-existing conditions. In 1917 one soldier, whose cause of attack was unknown, was described as ‘… deluded imagining his food is poisoned. He told me that he was surrounded by enemies who wished to take his life.’ [MS 344/15/14]. We don’t know the full details of this soldier’s condition, however the effects of war seem to be obvious.