Shell shock, a term familiar to most nowadays, was first used in the early months of the First World War to describe symptoms seen in soldiers exposed to exploding shells in the trenches .
Over 16,634 casualties of World War I were due to shell shock and Lennel House in Coldstream was used as a convalescent hospital for British, French and Belgian officers suffering the condition.
The medical notes of those officers suffering from what was termed a neurasthenic condition are among the few that have survived to this day. Sixty per cent of British military records were lost in World War II, placing greater importance on the Lennel Auxiliary Hospital data, including admission and discharge books, diagnosis and treatment. The Lennel records are now housed in the National Archives of Scotland. They were discovered by chance after a fire at Lennel House. A search of the premises unearthed a box a containing the documents.
The most effective treatment for shellshock was thought to be sending soldiers away from the front lines to convalescent houses such as Lennel House for a few days of psychiatric leave. However, this was not always possible nor was it a permanent fix.
At Lennel House, one of 1600 small hospitals established across the UK during the war, officers of the rank of Major and above, were placed under the care of neurology specialists and recuperated there until either being discharged from the army or returned to the front line.
Arriving there from treatment centres in London and Edinburgh convalescing officers were received as guests by Lady Clementine Waring who willingly opened up the house to them, dividing up bedrooms to increase the number of soldiers that could be accommodated at any one time - around 40. Treating them as guests at her country home, she would preside over meal times and in 1918 she was awarded the CBE and the Medal of Elizabeth of the Belgians in recognition of her work. In the early days of the war generals were inclined to believe that troops were suffering from cowardliness. Early medical opinion took the view that the damage was “commotional,” or related to the severe concussive motion of the shaken brain.
Shell shock then was initially deemed a physical injury, meaning the shellshocked soldier would be given a “wound stripe” for his uniform, making him eligible for discharge and a war pension.
But by 1916, military and medical authorities were convinced that many soldiers exhibiting the characteristic symptoms of trembling, headache, tinnitus, dizziness, poor concentration, confusion, loss of memory, and insomnia, had been nowhere near exploding shells. Their condition was described as “neurasthenia,” or weakness of the nerves; a nervous breakdown caused by the stress of war and the horrors of trench warfare.
By 1917 medical officers were being instructed to avoid the term “shell shock,” and record their condition as “Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous)”.
Once soldiers had been assessed at a psychiatric unit they would be diagnosed as “shell shock (wound)” or “shell shock (sick)” if they had not been close to an explosion; and those with shell shock (sick) would not get a “wound stripe” and could be sent back to the front line.
At Lennel House the private study of Major Waring, who was away fighting in France, Morocco and Salonica, was appropriated as an officers’ mess and among the officers who convalesced there was Siegfried Sassoon, best known for his angry and compassionate poems of the First World War, capturing the feeling of trench warfare.
After the war Lennel House returned to being a family home until 1987 when it became a nursing home, once more becoming a comfortable retreat from the rigours of the outside world for its guests, just as it was for those shell shocked officers a century ago.