The comfort of reading in WWI: the bibliotherapy of trench and hospital magazines


Australian War Memorial

Véronique Duché, The University of Melbourne and Amanda Laugesen, Australian National University

Modern warfare produces both trauma and boredom in equal measure. During the first world war, one way troops found solace was by writing and reading magazines created by soldiers, for soldiers.

Throughout the war, these magazines were produced in trenches, on troopships, in camps and in hospitals. Some were written by hand; others produced on makeshift printing presses soldiers came upon in war-torn towns of France and Belgium.

They could be simple pencilled sheets reproduced with carbon paper or made using jelly or spirit duplicators. Others were more sophisticated multi-page publications, often featuring illustrations.

Men work on a makeshift duplicator.
Some magazines were reproduced using jelly or spirit duplicators.
BNF/Gallica

The Australian War Memorial holds 170 troopship journals and over 70 trench magazines. Many other trench publications have disappeared; some can’t be read anymore because their ink has faded.

Our research focuses on how these magazines cared for soldiers, considering their significant psychological and emotional benefits.

Bran Mash and Aussie

One of the first Australian magazines was the Bran Mash, created by the 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment on Gallipoli.

Written in pencil on two leaves of official typing paper, and duplicated with carbon paper, there was only a single issue. It included a selection of the rumours, or “furphies”, circulating on Gallipoli.

Many trench journals published a single or limited number of issues. They were often forced to stop production because of troop movements, the loss of an editor or printing press, or lack of paper.

Phillip L. Harris, editor of trench magazine Aussie: the Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, once wrote he had made “a fortunate discovery in the cellar of a printery at Armentiéres”.

There, he found ten tons of paper, with which he printed 100,000 copies of the third issue of Aussie. With Harris at the helm, 13 issues of Aussie were produced in the Western Front trenches through 1918 and 1919.

A purple sketch
Evening in the basement, from the French trench magazine L’Argonnaute 1916.
BNF/Gallica

These magazines all reflected the humour, sentiment and preoccupations of soldiers and soldier-patients. The handwritten The Dinkum Oil, produced at Gallipoli over eight editions in 1915 was a place to express national identity — not least through the use of Australian slang.

These magazines offered therapeutic value through their reading, and writing. Stories, verse and jokes were all welcome, alongside items airing complaints: a much-needed release valve for the disgruntlements of military life.

Humour runs through them. A cartoon in Aussie, captioned “Polling Day in France”, showed two officers talking. “In what State did you enlist?” asks the senior officer. Private Jones replies: “In a state of drunkenness, sir”.

Cartoon, as rendered in body text.
This cartoon was published in the first edition of Aussie.
Cambridge University Library

Other anecdotes captured misunderstandings between the Australian soldiers and French civilians, with “bon soir” misheard as “bonza war!”




Read more:
Peter Weir’s Gallipoli 40 years on: deftly directed and still devastating


Bright and light

The editors called for “bright, short contributions”, as The Rising Sun, an Australian magazine produced from December 1916 to March 1917, put it.

French trench magazine Le Poilu (“The Hairy One”, a slang term for an infantryman) stated its ambition as being “simply to entertain you for a moment, between two heavy mortar shells, or even between two fatigue-duties.”

The Harefield Park Boomerang, published at the No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Harefield House in Middlesex, England, committed to having a “cheery tone”, despite the sometimes grim content of their publication.




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Friday essay: do ‘the French’ care about Anzac?


Alongside news of activities in the hospital and updates on sports news, it included mentions of men who died (“our fallen comrades”) and their funeral details, as well as updates on donations to the “headstone fund appeal”.

Alongside the grim realities, black humour is very apparent. A poem in Mountain Mist, a magazine produced by soldier-patients at the Bodington sanitorium in the Blue Mountains for returned soldiers suffering tuberculosis, played on the popular soldier song Parlez Vous with words changed to reflect the experience of the tubercular soldier:

Digger had a little cough

It wasn’t much you know

Yet everywhere that Digger went

His cough it had to go.

Sentiment also figured strongly. Poems praising mothers and sisters were common, and there were many invocations of home.

In 1917, J.J. Collins wrote a poem “To my mother”, published in the Harefield Park Boomerang, comforting her he was not defeated by his wounds:

I’ll bring home marks of a German shell.

But what does it matter, mother dear?

Dry from your eye that glistening tear.

Let your heart rejoice at the pain I’ve borne.

These magazines were also sent home, giving loved ones a glimpse of war life.

Hospital magazines could provide some reassurance to loved ones, but the picture they painted was incomplete. Soldier-patients were typically presented as stoic, cheerful and able to cope with whatever was thrown at them – as the poem by Collins shows.

But the reality for many returned soldiers who had been wounded would be a legacy of ill-health and early death.

For soldiers wounded in ways that would forever change them, this was perhaps how they preferred to be seen — still men, still warriors. These magazines reworked the traumas of war to try and make the experience palatable for the men, and for their loved ones.




Read more:
Telling the forgotten stories of Indigenous servicemen in the first world war


Ongoing bibliotherapy

These early trench and hospital magazines played an essential psychological function. In providing entertainment and in keeping soldiers’ minds occupied, they were a much-needed form of therapy and mental comfort in difficult times.

The magazines – by and for the soldiers – were often lovingly self-deprecating, as seen here in Aussie.
Cambridge University Library

The place these magazines held in soldiers’ hearts was perhaps illustrated in the reprinting of all the wartime editions of Aussie magazine in 1920.

Phillip Harris subsequently revived the paper, now to be a general newspaper that would transfer the “splendid spirit of comradeship, enthusiasm and patriotism” of the Australian soldiers to the Australian population at large. It lasted until 1931.The Conversation

Véronique Duché, A.R. Chisholm Professor of French, The University of Melbourne and Amanda Laugesen, Director, Australian National Dictionary Centre, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bibliotherapy: how reading and writing have been healing trauma since World War I



File 20181114 194500 14phsyv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Viacheslav Nikolaenko via Shutterstock

Sara Haslam, The Open University; Edmund King, The Open University, and Siobhan Campbell, The Open University

Bibliotherapy – the idea that reading can have a beneficial effect on mental health – has undergone a resurgence. There is mounting clinical evidence that reading can, for example, help people overcome loneliness and social exclusion. One scheme in Coventry allows health professionals to prescribe books to their patients from a list drawn up by mental health experts.

Even as public library services across Britain are cut back, the healing potential of books is increasingly recognised.

The idea of the healing book has a long history. Key concepts were forged in the crucible of World War I, as nurses, doctors and volunteer librarians grappled with treating soldiers’ minds as well as bodies. The word “bibliotherapy” itself was coined in 1914, by American author and minister Samuel McChord Crothers. Helen Mary Gaskell (1853-1940), a pioneer of “literary caregiving”, wrote about the beginnings of her war library in 1918:

Surely many of us lay awake the night after the declaration of War, debating … how best we could help in the coming struggle … Into the mind of the writer came, like a flash, the necessity of providing literature for the sick and wounded.

The well-connected Gaskell took her idea to the medical and governmental authorities, gaining official approval. Lady Battersea, a close friend, offered her a Marble Arch mansion to store donated books, and The Times carried multiple successful public appeals. As Gaskell wrote:

What was our astonishment when not only parcels and boxes, but whole libraries poured in. Day after day vans stood unloading at the door.

Gaskell’s library was affiliated to the Red Cross in 1915 and operated internationally – with depots in Egypt, Malta, and Salonika. Her operating principles, axiomatic to bibliotherapy, were to provide a “flow of comfort” based on a “personal touch”. Gaskell explained that “the man who gets the books he needs is the man who really benefits from our library, physically and mentally”.

Her colleagues running Endell Street Military Hospital’s library shared similar views about the importance of books in wartime. On August 12, 1916, the Daily Telegraph reported on the hospital, calling the library a “story in itself”. Run by novelist Beatrice Harraden, a member of the Womens Social and Political Union and also, briefly, the actress and feminist playwright Elizabeth Robins, the library was a fundamental part of the treatment of 26,000 wounded between 1915 and 1918.

“We learned,” Robins wrote in Ancilla’s Share, her 1924 analysis of gender politics, “that the best way, often the only way, to get on with curing men’s bodies was to do something for their minds.”

The books the men wanted first were likely to be by the ex-journalist and popular writer Nat Gould, whose novels about horseracing were bestsellers. Otherwise, fiction by Rudyard Kipling, Marie Corelli, or Robert Louis Stevenson rated highly. In the Cornhill Magazine in November, 1916, Harraden revealed that the librarians’ “pilgrimages” from one bedside to another ensured what she called “good literature” was always within reach, but that the book that would “heal” was the one that was most wanted:

However ill [a patient] was, however suffering and broken, the name of Nat Gould would always bring a smile to his face.

The literary caregivers at Endell Street worked responsively, and without judgement, a crucial legacy.

Library on the frontline

Literary caregiving also took place closer to the front. Throughout the war, the YMCA operated a network of recreation huts and lending libraries for soldiers. After losing his only son, Oscar, at Ypres, the author E. W. Hornung offered his services to the YMCA. Hornung – a relatively obscure figure now, but a literary celebrity then – authored the “Raffles” stories about the gentleman thief of the same name.

Longshaw Lodge Convalescent Home for Wounded Soldiers, Grindleford, near Sheffield.
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Arriving in France in late 1917, Hornung was initially put to work serving tea to British soldiers. But the YMCA soon found him a more suitable job, placing him in charge of a new lending library for soldiers in Arras. Dispensing tea and books to soldiers helped him process his grief. Hearing soldiers talk about their favourite books played a key role in his recovery – but he also sincerely believed that reading helped soldiers keep their minds healthy while they were in the trenches. Hornung wrote in 1918 that he wanted to feed “the intellectually starved”, while “always remembering that they are fighting-men first and foremost, and prescribing for them both as such and as the men they used to be”.

Writing a new future

Present-day veterans encounter the potential of reading and writing in equally participatory ways as interventions with the charities Combat Stress UK (CSUK) and Veterans’ Outreach Services demonstrate.

In CSUK, we read widely from contemporary work before undertaking writing exercises. These were designed to help provide detachment from the internal repetition of traumatic stories that some with PTSD experience. The director of therapy at CSUK, Janice Lobban, says:

Collaborative work … gave combat stress veterans the valuable opportunity of developing creative writing skills. Typically, the clinical presentation of veterans causes them to avoid unfamiliar situations and the loss of self-confidence can affect the ability to develop creative potential. Workshops within the safety of our Surrey treatment centre enabled veterans to have the confidence to experiment with new ideas.

Another approach, in workshops with Veterans’ Outreach Support in Portsmouth in 2018, explored the role of writing in training veterans to become “peer-mentors” of other veterans wanting to access VOS services, ranging from physical and mental wellness to housing benefits to job-seeking.

The results show that veterans responded positively to opportunities for imaginative writing. Trainee peer-mentors responding to a questionnaire told us that the exercises helped them to write fluently about their own lives. For people who spend so much time filling out forms to access various benefits, the opportunity to write creatively was seen as a liberating experience. As one veteran put it: “We are writing into ourselves”.

For 100 years now, reading and writing have helped veterans build relationships, gain confidence and face the challenges of their post-service lives. Our current research charts the influence of wartime literary caregiving on contemporary practice.The Conversation

Sara Haslam, Senior Lecturer in English, The Open University; Edmund King, Lecturer in English, The Open University, and Siobhan Campbell, Lecturer of Creative Writing, The Open University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.