On the concept of traumaBMJ 2009; 339 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b4577 (Published 04 November 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4577
- Simon Wessely, director, King’s Centre for Military Health Research, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London
I recently gave a talk at our local school. My subject: shell shock in the first world war. I asked the pupils to name the most famous soldier of that war. Some named Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon (none named or even knew about the “old boys” of their school whose Victoria crosses were honoured on a board in the hall in which I was speaking). But for them the most influential soldier of that conflict was neither their own forgotten heroes nor the war poets but a person who never existed: Captain Edmund Blackadder. Their views of the first world war had been shaped not by historians but Richard Curtis and Ben Elton. And so when we reached the topic of my talk, the prevailing view was that victims of shell shock usually ended up being shot for cowardice. I tried to argue that it was not so simple, but Oh! What a Lovely War and Captain Blackadder were more than a match for my attempt to reclaim the Great War for history.
Of course, much has changed since 1918, even if we have little to be complacent about when it comes to the contemporary treatment of mental breakdown …