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The Open University

The First World War: trauma and memory

The Open University via OpenLearn


The First World War was a war of unprecedented scale and brutality, with countless casualties. It also left a poisonous legacy for the twentieth century and beyond, and many of the issues that were left unresolved in 1918 would lead to another world war in 1939. 1914-1918 was a period in history that has proved provocative and culturally resonant for the last hundred years.In this free online course, The First World War: trauma and memory, you will study the subject of physical and mental trauma, its treatments and its representation. You will focus not only on the trauma experienced by combatants but also the effects of the First World War on civilian populations.Over three weeks, you will discover just how devastating the effects of the First World War were in terms of casualties across the many combatant nations, and look in depth at the problem of 'shell shock' and how deeply it affected the lives of those who lived through it. You will also develop the skills to carry out your own independent research.However, the war was not only experienced on the battlefield. You’ll explore the many and varied ways in which the war impacted on civilians, including the way combatant casualties affected the lives of loved ones who were left behind.Finally, you will look at how the trauma of the war has been depicted in art and literature, and see what has been learned from the past in the modern day treatment of combat stress reactions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).This course is aimed at anyone with an interest in the First World War. Some prior knowledge of the history involved may be helpful in understanding the context of some elements of the course, but is not necessary.By enrolling on this course you can track your progress and gain a Statement of Participation for completing the whole course.


  • Week1Week 1: Physical and mental casualties
  • Introduction
  • 1.1 Injuries of the First World War
  • 1.1.1 Physical injuries
  • 1.1.2 Finding and interrogating historical data
  • 1.1.3 Search for yourself
  • 1.1.4 Casualties summary
  • 1.2 Introducing shell shock
  • 1.2.1 Interview with Dr Fiona Reid
  • 1.2.2 Treatment of shell shock
  • 1.2.3 Discussing shell shock
  • 1.3 Week 1 summary
  • Further reading
  • Acknowledgements
  • Week2Week 2: Civilian war experiences
  • Introduction
  • 2.1 Atrocities against civilians
  • 2.1.1 The experience of invasion and occupation
  • 2.1.2 The war from the air
  • 2.1.3 The bombing of Hartlepool
  • 2.1.4 Atrocities committed by other armies
  • 2.1.5 Propaganda
  • 2.2 Hunger
  • 2.2.1 Turnips
  • 2.2.2 Hunger: a child’s perspective
  • 2.2.3 The global consequences of the war: the ‘Spanish Flu’
  • 2.3 Week 2 summary
  • References
  • Further reading
  • Acknowledgements
  • Week3Week 3: Trauma, grief and bereavement
  • Introduction
  • 3.1 Mourning the dead
  • 3.1.1 Grief and mourning in literature and art
  • 3.1.2 Vera Brittain
  • 3.1.3 Awaiting a telegram
  • 3.1.4 Reactions: trauma, grief and disgust in art
  • 3.1.5 Siegfried Sassoon and shell shock
  • 3.1.6 Great War poets and shell shock
  • 3.1.7 War poetry in the twentieth century
  • 3.1.8 Shell shock in fiction: the example of Pat Barker
  • 3.2 Developing medical attitudes to shell shock after the war
  • 3.2.1 Shell shock since the First World War
  • 3.2.2 Fiona Reid: shell shock
  • 3.2.3 War neurosis and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • 3.3 Summary
  • Where next?
  • References
  • Further reading
  • Acknowledgements


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