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‘If I Could Only Get My Mind Back To Normal’: PTSD in the Aftermath of WWI

The following is a guest post by Matt McCrady, Digital Conversion Specialist.

United States participation in World War I lasted a little over a year, from April 1917 to November 1918, but the cost would be deeply imprinted on the entire history of the 20th century and the lives of the individuals who fought in the Great War. In letters, photographs, memoirs, and reminiscences by family members, the World War I collections within the Veterans History Project (VHP) archive vividly illustrate the personal toll of a war that some men were unable to leave on the battlefields of Europe—a grim reality that is often overlooked.

George Doll in uniform, Indiana. George Doll Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/46763.

Indiana native Corporal George Doll served with the Army Transportation Corps in France. He and his wife, Blanch, exchanged nearly 400 letters with each other over the course of the war and into the 1920s. The bulk of George Doll’s letters, written during wartime, are full of wit, innocent love, and expressions of longing for his “Dearest Honey Bunch.” Writing to Blanch in 1919 as he was waiting for discharge, he noted that he had the opportunity to stay in New York a couple days, but “nothing doing.” Doll stated that as soon as his papers were in his hand, he was heading for Indianapolis to “get all Dolled up and engage a room” for the two of them. If the couple’s correspondence ended there, one might come away with the impression that their future together was rosy. However, when their letters resume in 1926, we find George Doll living in Los Angeles, California, alone, unemployed, and feeling sorry for himself. He is being sued by creditors, and he laments that he can’t seem to “get my mind back to normal” and that he has been “hardly right … since the war.”

Reese Melvin Russell was another young man whose innocence was lost during the Great War. His combat diary narrates his experiences in the trenches, including being gassed during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. His daughter, Frances, writes that after the war, “my father could no longer relate to the world he left behind.” He suffered from alcoholism and insomnia the rest of his life, and like George Doll, had trouble keeping a job. What he saw and experienced across the Atlantic in war-ravaged Europe, Russell never spoke of to anyone. When his children came home from school with history lessons involving World War I, he would not even allow mention of it in his presence.

Much like Doll and Russell, the war haunted Hubert Wesselman for his entire life. A veteran of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, Wesselman’s combat diary contains a prescient observation of how the effects of the war would linger:

It is not very healthy to lay in them darned dugouts day after day. I don’t feel much effect yet but am afraid I will in the future.

Hubert Wesselman after WWI, in the mountains west of Denver, Colorado. Hubert Wesselman Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/67485.

In one photograph taken following his return from Europe, he is seated on a rock in a stream gazing down at the water moving around his bare feet. According to his daughter, this photo depicts a man who would often go off alone, either to escape or relive the memories of the war he experienced. Family asked him where he would go during these lonely excursions, and he would not answer. In commenting on his post-service life, his daughter wrote, “Depression had not yet been diagnosed as a disease… And Dad lived in an era where you carried your ‘cross’ in silence.” Tragically, Wesselman took his own life at the age of 61.

These are but three stories of the effects of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There are many more in the Veterans History Project archives, some of which can be viewed via our online exhibit on PTSD. Euphemistically called “shell shock” in World War I and “combat fatigue” in World War II, those names suggest some brief infirmity, like being stunned by a loud noise or exhausted after a day’s work, but PTSD is long-lasting and can be as deadly, and certainly as destructive, as any shell, landmine, or bullet. We understand that now. Unfortunately, the help these men needed wasn’t available in their era.

In commemorating the World War I Armistice, it’s important to remember that for many WWI veterans, the war did not end with the cessation of hostilities. For veterans like Doll, Russell, and Wesselman, who continued to relive their combat experiences for the rest of their lives, the horrors of war continued long past November 11, 1918.

For more stories from the Great War, please see our online exhibits here and here. If you’re in Washington, DC, don’t miss the last months of the Library of Congress’s exhibit Echoes of the Great War, on display until January 21, 2019.

 

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