|British Dressing Station in Salonika|
By Doreen Isherwood
Gas warfare was introduced on the Western Front by the Germans on 2 April 1915 when they discharged 160 tons of chlorine gas against Allied troops near Langemark in Belgium. The gas, which causes death by drowning in the excess fluid secreted by the lungs, was a chemical by-product of the German dye industry. Haig's Intelligence Chief, Brigadier John Charteris, who witnessed the first attack, wrote: “The horrible part of it is the slow death of those who are gassed. . . slowly drowning with water in their lungs. . . and the doctors quite powerless.” Gas warfare using phosgene to mustard gas was used by all sides, but with the development of more efficient respirators and problems with unpredictable wind changes in northern France and Belgium, it never became a decisive weapon. Respirators, however, were no defense against the blistering mustard gas that rolled through the trenches in a yellow cloud.
Survivors of gas attacks suffered lung damage for the rest of their lives, leaving them vulnerable to repeated chest infections and limiting their chances of employment. Such was the fear of gas attacks at the outbreak of WWII that masks were issued immediately to the civilian population in Britain.
The vast canvas of John Singer Sargent's painting Gassed, which was voted “Picture of the Year” by the Royal Academy in 1919 (Gilbert 474), now hangs in a separate room in London's Imperial War Museum art gallery. Sargent's assignment from the British Ministry of Information was to promote the spirit of cooperation of “British and American Troops Working Together.” However, when he saw a line of soldiers blinded by mustard gas queuing for treatment at a dressing station on the Somme, he ignored his official assignment in order to capture this moving portrait of the helplessness of the young men.
Men at the front not only suffered horrific physical injuries but also experienced a wide range of mental traumas that often went unrecognized. The catchall condition, “shell shock” was denied by British medical officers and the military because of the threat to morale and discipline in the ranks. Mentally ill men could be branded as deserters and executed, causing many to hide their condition rather than to seek medical help. Signs of traumatic neurosis were already apparent in the industrial workplace. Leese equates the development of protective mental process in factory workers with those of soldiers in the trenches, but this assessment denies the reality of life in the trenches where routine was absent and survival improbable. He describes the response of many soldiers to the effects of prolonged battlefield exposure as “seasickness or anesthetic injection…a feeling of overwhelming mental and physical exhaustion… the resultant sense of lost self-identity and individuality.”
Eventually, men would be assessed at the front, dividing those with mild symptoms who could return to active duty after a period of rest, from the more serious cases that needed specialized treatment in Britain. Methods ranged from peace and quiet to electric shock treatments. Nearly 4,000 patients were treated by a new team of doctors and scientists at the Red Cross Military Hospital near Liverpool. The team leader, Richard Rows, a follower of Freud and Jung, rejected the harsh physical treatments and adopted a revolutionary approach using psychoanalysis. The War Office took the unprecedented step of funding the hospital and from 1917 ran training courses to transfer the techniques to new centres in Britain and France. The emphasis was on returning the mentally wounded to the front line as soon as possible, but the gradual recognition of battle trauma paved the way for the new field of psychoanalysis and increased the standing of psychiatrists in orthodox medicine. Martin Gilbert reports that “as many as 50,000 former British soldiers were receiving government pensions for the continuing effects of shell shock.”
Source: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of the Journal of the World War One Historical Association