A post with a difference today. But still within the theme of “discovering Belgium”. I would like to draw your attention to a double exhibition called War and Trauma taking place in Ghent and Ypres that focuses on the physical and mental consequences of war, from the First World War to more recent conflicts. The Dr Guislain Museum in Ghent goes deep into psychological trauma; the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres looks at medical care at the front.
“I saw strong, sturdy men shaking with ague, mouthing like madmen, figures of dreadful terror, speechless and uncontrollable.” This is how Philip Gibbs, a journalist covering the First World War, described a condition that as early as December 1914 was leaving doctors on both sides in despair, wondering what was going on. Symptoms included fatigue, tremor, confusion, nightmares, and impaired sight and hearing.
The soldiers themselves simply called it “shell shock”, and it was initially considered to be due solely to the effects of explosions from artillery shells and grenades. In an effort to better understand the condition and propose a treatment policy, the British Army appointed Charles S. Myers, a medically trained psychologist, to accompany the British Expeditionary Force. Myers soon realised that many men suffered from shell shock without having been in the front lines. He pinpointed psychological trauma as its cause.
Myers’ work was not appreciated by the top brass, who regarded soldiers suffering from shell shock as cowards and malingerers. Many sufferers were charged with desertion or insubordination. Some were executed. Others committed suicide rather than return to the front line. Between 1914 and 1918 the British Army identified 80,000 men (2% of those who saw active service) as suffering from shell shock.
The double exhibition “War and Trauma” in Ghent and Ypres explores the perception and understanding of mental and physical suffering during and since the Great War.
Ghent: Soldiers and Psychiatrists
The half of the exhibition running at the Dr Guislain Museum in Ghent is called “Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914-2014”. It portrays trauma through a combination of art and documentary material. Excerpts from books, patient registers and postcards give an impression of the spirit of the times. The works of art show how people deal with war and trauma, at the time itself and afterwards. It is a fascinating and broad ranging exhibition.
Ypres: Soldiers and Ambulances
At the beginning of the First World War, none of the combatants had a system in place to care for wounded soldiers and civilians. This was left largely to private initiatives and the heroic efforts of individuals. The exhibition “Soldiers and Ambulances 1914-1918” at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres focuses on medical care at the front. It describes the chaos of the first months of the war, and the chronic shortages of basic medical supplies. It looks at the most common types of injuries and illnesses with which the physicians in the few field hospitals were confronted.
As the war progressed, medical care also developed, and organisation and relief improved. We learn about the creation of evacuation routes, the specialisation in care, and the development in medicine. A stunning collection of diaries, letters, literature, photography and objects reinforces the sober fact that during this horrendous war, its physical and mental consequences were at the bottom of the priority list of the military.
Both exhibitions are highly recommended. Some of the exhibits are not easy to view. But they are nevertheless essential for a fuller understanding of the never-ending effects of warfare.