Thank you, Jane, for inviting me to participate in your blog this week. I thought I’d share a few insights into the historical research behind The Broken Vow. I was fascinated to read in your review of the book that your grandfather worked with traumatised veterans after the war, so I’ve chosen to focus on what I learned about the condition we now call PTSD.

The Broken Vow begins in early 1915, several months after the start of the First World War. The main character, Charlotte Fitznorton, sets up a convalescent home for officers as a sanctuary for her fiancé Eustace, who returns from the Western Front with a mysterious new condition: “shell-shock”.

Before starting to write, I already knew that shell-shock was poorly understood during WWI, and that this led to some appalling miscarriages of justice in which traumatised soldiers were shot for cowardice or desertion. However, I wasn’t aware of the sheer range of physical and mental symptoms suffered by thousands of men who had experienced war’s horrors.

I was moved by this harrowing testimony from A Nurse at the Front (Sister Edith Appleton’s war diary): “By far the majority of the sick were suffering badly from shellshock. It is sad to see them - they dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates who were blown to bits, or their mates who were wounded and never brought in. The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of the sight of it. One rumpled, raisin-faced old fellow said his job was to take bombs up to the bombers, and sometimes going through the trenches he had to push past men with their arms blown off or horribly wounded, and they would yell at him, ‘Don’t touch me,’ but he had to get past, because the fellows must have their bombs. Then he would stand on something wobbly and nearly fall down - and see it was a dying or dead man, half covered in mud. Once he returned to find his own officer blown to bits - a leg in one place, his body in another.”

No wonder many broke down.

The term “shell-shock” was first coined early in 1915 by a British army doctor to describe worrying symptoms he had observed in soldiers who appeared outwardly unharmed. He thought shell-shock might be a physical, rather than mental disorder, resulting from brain damage or concussion from shell blasts. Others viewed it as “war neurasthenia” or mental breakdown. For a society which prized manly self-control and saw fear or distress as weakness, shell-shock caused confusion. How could men who had volunteered to serve, and who might even have recently won medals for valour, be exhibiting what was perceived as signs of cowardice or womanly hysteria?

Symptoms included stupor; blindness; an inability to speak; loss of smell or taste; paralysis; tics; tremors; dramatic physical palsies and jerks; night terrors; headaches; and hallucinations. The treatments offered were experimental. Some doctors applied electric shocks; others advised rest, massage, hypnosis, or simply told sufferers to try to forget their experiences. Dr WHR Rivers, who famously treated Siegfried Sassoon, employed talking therapy.

In The Broken Vow I was keen to show not only how soldiers were affected by trauma, but also the attitudes of people on the home front towards them. Sadly, it wasn’t unusual for soldiers who had risked their lives and experienced unimaginable horrors to be regarded as cowardly or insane. I can only hope that I’ve represented this deeply distressing and debilitating condition with the fairness and empathy those men deserve.



Book link The Broken Vow

Book link The Gilded Cage