No Peace of Mind: the psychological side of the First World War

Never before in the field of human conflict had a war involved so many people, or engrossed so much of the human body and mind, such was the significance of the First World War. This explains why many historians have identified the First World War as the first ‘total war’ in history, due to the psychological effects the conflict had upon both civilians and combatants. Not only was this the first conflict which used machinery and mechanised weapons en masse,  but was also the first to engage the human mind on such a vast scale.

One of the First World War’s lesser recognised impacts – and perhaps its most important – was that it acted as the catalyst for the recognition of the psychological impacts of conflict. Not only did the war have an impact upon the minds of the soldiers, but the civilian population as well. For this reason, the First World War gave birth to a new type of warfare, which engaged the mind in numerous ways never seen before.

Firstly, the first conflict in which propaganda was used en masse was the First World War. Propaganda was a political tool utilised by the majority of belligerent states, and took many different forms. For example, a British piece of propaganda entitled the ‘Gentle German’ (left) demonises the evil Hun in an attempt to create an aura of contempt and disgust about how Germany conducted their war. On the contrary, German propaganda (right) often included pictures of the captured enemy, including important personnel, to display their own strength. By fighting a psychological war on the Home Front, Britain and Germany alike looked to win the minds of the public and mobilise their national sentiments to aid the war effort.

Two contrasting examples of propaganda from the First World War. The British display Germans as cruel, whereas Germany boasted capturing high-ranking British military officials. Source: Alamy and Wikipedia

However, one of the most notable differences between the First World War and previous conflicts was how the war was fought. New technologies – such as tanks, planes and various pieces of heavy artillery – were used in their masses for the first time in the history of warfare. This new form of mass, mechanical warfare meant that there were now numerous new ways to kill or maim human beings, both physically and mentally.

The First World War created conditions in which mental health had to be thought about in a new light, which led to the development and innovation of new psychological medicine. The emergence of mental health as a prominent issue in the war had never been experienced on such a scale in wars of yesteryear, and the human psyche was beginning to be viewed and understood in an entirely new way.

As femininity evolved because of the changing role of women on the Home Front, masculinity saw its main changes occur in the trenches. It was martial masculinity and feminine emotions which enabled the majority of servicemen to survive the psychologically and physically gruelling conditions presented by trench warfare. Officers took on parental roles for the soldiers, and coupled with men growing to feel they could display their emotions, the First World War played a significant part in changing social attitudes towards both genders.

German troops read the Daily Mail in a dugout east of Ypres, Belgium, in 1915. In order for men on both sides to ensure they coped with the realities of the First World War mentally, making a ‘home’ in the trenches was key. Homemaking and associated activities were in stark contradiction to the perceived gender roles of men in the early twentieth century. Source: History Daily

Finally, one of the mental conditions synonymous with the First World War is ‘shell shock’, which we would diagnose as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) today. Whereas at the start of the war this condition was thought to have derived from hereditary mental weakness or trauma earlier in life, wartime advances in psychological medicine meant that ‘shell shock’ was seen as a direct consequence of the war itself.

The harsh conditions suffered by those in the trenches, and the consequent mental strain placed upon them, meant that many eventually capitulated under the continual psychological degradation. After all, listening to the whizzing and banging of howitzers, and the zip and crack of machine gun bullets on a daily basis would be enough to take its toll on anybody.

A British soldier recieves electro-shock treatment from a nurse during the First World War. Although today we would consider the treatment of mental illness with electric shocks outdated, the fact that armies looked to treat their soldiers for mental illnesses illustrates the progress that the First World War brought about for psychological medicine. Source: Hektoen International

The mental strain of war made it essential for every soldier to look for a coping mechanism that would ensure their emotional survival; for many, the thought of home provided this. Servicemen on all sides adapted trench life to be as homely as possible, with letters and packages from home enabling them to do this. Things such as chocolate bars from Blighty or a picture of loved ones could help ease the mental strain of trench warfare. For most of those serving on the front line, it was essentially the thought of home which kept them going.

We cannot underestimate the contribution of the mind to the totality of the First World War, particularly considering how widespread the psychological impacts of the war were. Not only did this new form of mass, mechanised warfare provide new physical challenges for those in combat, but it also tested them mentally. Both on the front line and at home, never had a conflict engaged and destroyed the minds of so many before. Consequently, not only should the First World War be remembered for its devastating physical impacts, but also its destructive and productive psychological ramifications.

By Miles Clayton

Miles is our resident blogger here at History Indoors. He is an a Final Year student studying Modern History at the University of Essex and researches the positive experiences of British children on the Home Front during the Second World War, with oral histories sitting at the heart of the research. If there are any questions you have on this topic that you would like to see answered, please post them in the comments section below and we will be happy to answer them!