This project (2018-1-ES01-KA203-050606) has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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Digital Objects

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War Neuroses 2 (1917)

Place where the object is located
Wellcome Library, London, UK
The entire video is available at
Story of the object
During the First World War, the term ‘shell shock’ was coined by the psychologist Charles Samuel Myers to describe the various nervous and mental conditions that British servicemen suffered while serving on the western front. Such conditions had been noted from the earliest stages of the war – which realised the full potential of mass mechanised warfare for the first time – and were soon a serious issue for the British Army. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, up to 40% of the causalities were ‘shell shocked’, which caused concern about there being an epidemic of psychiatric casualties that would severely affect the military’s effective capacity.

In order to respond to this potential crisis about which little was known, a range of cures were attempted such as hypnosis, electric shocks, suggestion, persuasion and deception, either in isolation or in tandem with other methods, often with little success. What exactly was attempted depended on the presenting symptoms, the views of the doctors involved, and factors such as the military rank and social class of the patient.

War Neurosis is likely to be the first film shot in the UK to focus on the treatment of patients by medical practitioners. However, its focus was not so much on the actual treatments involved, but rather the before and after effects of treatment for ‘shell shock’. The doctor who directed the filming, Dr Arthur Hurst, was highly ambitious and wished to demonstrate the effectiveness of the special clinical unit he ran at Seal Hayne Military Hospital, where many patients were said to be cured in a matter of hours. Thus, the film shows a series of patients presenting with a variety of symptoms before cutting to the aftereffects of their treatment: rigid joints now flexible, facial tics gone, and walking gaits improved. All now able to take part in activities shown in the film such as farming, berry picking, and basket weaving. Only once in the film is any treatment shown – a short section that shows a patient undergoing hypnosis to temporarily resolve a tic (2.50).

Similar films were made by French and German doctors during the war. Hurst may have been aware of the French films, but certainly took inspiration from newsreel films in Britain. The most popular film shown in Britain during the war, The Battle of the Somme (1916), included medical scenes and appears to have been the inspiration for the final sequence, ‘The Battle of Seale Hayne’ (24.30). This was a mock-battle recorded on Dartmoor with patients taking on the role of soldiers, Hurst possibly playing the role of the officer parading the soldiers before battle.

‘The Battle of Seale Hayne’ was not the only faked scene in the film, however. The background of the Sergeant Bissett case (14.05) shows that it was filmed after his recovery – the group of nurses in the background of the section showing his symptoms, bent over and only able to hobble with the help of two sticks, are in an identical spot in the recovery scene. Creating the illusion of reality was integral to filmmaking in the period, and Hurst may also have felt justified in encouraging the faked symptoms as it reflected a previous clinical reality – the ends justifying the means. As other doctors did, Hurst also employed deception in treating patients: to cure functional deafness Hurst faked operations on patients to ‘restore’ their hearing, in the process attempting to persuade them they could hear, for example.

What do you think about such deceptions in treatment and in demonstrating therapeutic success? Are there any ethical issues? Does the use of film or photography complicate these issues?
An encoded moving image (27 minutes), silent, black and white. Filmed at two locations in 1917: the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, and Seale Hayne Military Hospital, near Newton Abbot. The filming was directed by Dr (later Sir) Arthur Hurst and Dr J. L. M. Symns. Pathé Motion Picture Co. shot and produced the film, which took place intermittently over eight months.

The original 16mm film reel is held by the Wellcome Library, who also hold the film in a variety of other formats such as videocassettes and DVDs. The main catalogue entry can be found here:

The Wellcome Library is part of the Wellcome Trust, a research-charity based in London, one of the largest non-governmental funders of scientific and medical humanities research in the world. The library holds a huge range of historical material relating to medicine, broadly construed, from ancient medicine to the present day.

This video is reproduced on this site under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.