War and trauma in Ghent and Ypres


Fascinating and disturbing double exhibition looks at shell shock and the chaos of war through art, archives and postcards

“Figures of dreadful terror”

“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 happening. Symptoms included fatigue, tremors, 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. The half of the exhibition at the Dr Guislain Museum in Ghent is called Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914-2014, and 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 and afterwards. It is a fascinating and broad-ranging exhibition, divided into four parts. 

Art and mental illness

The first part concentrates on the “knowing and forgetting” of shell shock. You step straight into the office of a psychiatrist, albeit a fictitious one – “Dr Hahneman” – created by the Flemish artist Koen Broucke. Hahneman’s special interest is the link between art and mental illness, and he collects work from different artists and displays them on his office walls. 

Some of the artists are fixated by guns, others by battlefields, and others on the bombardment of Baghdad. “We want to show the link between the history of psychiatry, war and art, and Broucke gives a perfect introduction to the subject with a display made especially for this exhibition,” explains Yoon Hee Lamot, scientific staff member at the museum.

Other artists include Achille Van Sassenbrouck, who lost an eye in 1915 and whose pictures reflect the resulting psychological trauma, and Rik Wouters, who in 1914 was called up to fight in Liège against the invading German force. “The horrific sight of all those young dead drove me mad,” he reported.

Also created especially for the exhibition is British artist Eleanor Crook’s group of sculptured soldiers called “And the band played on”. The soldiers come from various wars right up to Afghanistan, each of which has inflicted its particular type of injuries, which have been partially covered up with plastic surgery. The set-up as a military band shows the bond between the soldiers, but simultaneously ridicules the marching music that should encourage them. 

A dark chapter

The second part considers how the obliteration of mental illness even became an objective to strive for socially – an extraordinarily dark chapter in the history of psychiatry. It touches on how Nazism, as a totalitarian ideology supported by militarism, dealt with mental illness. On display are selected works by German artist George Grosz, who became a pacifist after serving on the front in 1914-15. His drawings show the misery of mutilated soldiers and civilians, but also depict war profiteers and generals in a caricatured way. He continued this approach into the Nazi era, ended up on the Nazi blacklist and fled to America.

We want to show the link between the history of psychiatry, war and art

- Yoon Hee Lamot

With his drawings about the Holocaust, Jim Kaliski submerges us in the lives of Brussels’ Jews, before, during and after the Second World War. Born in 1929 in Brussels, Kaliski suffered from anti-Jewish laws, bullying and discrimination, witnessed his father’s deportation in 1944, and lost family members in the concentration camps. His drawings in Indian ink reflect his traumatic experiences and memories. 

The counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s brought the interest of groups such as war veterans to the fore. This had a dual effect. On one hand, traumatised soldiers were offered help and were allowed to express their experiences and feelings in groups. On the other hand, the veterans made sure that the general public was made aware of the traumatic consequences of war. This is the subject of the third part: How is war perceived at home? What is the role of reporters and photographers? How do artists depict the madness of war? 

Powerful images

Entering this section of the exhibition, you cannot fail to be affected by “The Sacrifice”, a selection of 60 photographs taken by the American war photographer James Nachtwey. “In 2006 Nachtwey followed emergency doctors in Iraq and captured the whole treatment process: from evacuations by helicopter to the daily battle in medical centres,” explains Lamot. “The title refers not only to wounded and killed soldiers and civilians, but also to the time and energy doctors and nurses spend every day saving these people’s lives.”

Nachtwey followed emergency doctors in Iraq and captured the whole treatment process

- Yoon Hee Lamot

Equally powerful is Robin Hammond’s photo documentary of various conflicts in Congo, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda. The Dane Jan Grarup provides disturbing photos of the Gulf War, the genocide in Rwanda and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict over 20 years.

“The fourth part focuses on the broadening of the concept of trauma and the realisation that the mental sufferings of victims of rape, domestic violence and incest are essentially the same as victims of war,” says Lamot. “In this respect, the anonymous English blogger Legofesto’s creations highlight the world’s injustices in a surprising way. Her use of colourful Lego blocks captures horrific scenes in a new light.”

The grim scenes of Ronald Ophuis – such as the five-metre-high painting “Srebrenica” – are yet another way in which the exhibition at the Dr Guislain Museum confronts us with the inhumanity and trauma of all aspects of conflict.

Developing care

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 military’s priority list.

War & Trauma
Until 30 June
Museum Dr Guislain, Jozef Guislainstraat 43, Ghent
In Flanders Fields Museum, Lakenhallen, Grote Markt 34, Ypres

First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

annual visitors to the Westhoek

1 914

First Battle of Ypres