World War One’s Forgotten Female Shell-Shock Victims via The Atlantic

In late 1917, a British woman named Elizabeth Huntley decapitated her own daughter. When the case went to trial, her friends and family testified that she had been a “jolly-hearted woman”—that is, “until the air raids.” Her sister told the judge that the raids in London caused Elizabeth to shake and have delusions, and that she had become depressed. Her doctor had tried to get her out of London and away from her children, because during the raids they “screamed” and “worried her,” but he was too late. She had a nervous breakdown during a raid, and murdered her child. They called it “air raid shock.”

During World War I, the relatively new field of psychoanalysis was full of possibility and, unfortunately, thousands of new patients. The war’s destruction was not limited to the physical; the psychological devastation was immense, and soldiers returned home from the front every day exhibiting a range of new symptoms, including “hysterical paralysis,” deafness, mutism, arthritis, facial spasms, “fear, disgust, fatigue,” “delirium,” “suicidal thoughts,” “stammer,” and more. Though we now recognize many of these as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, doctors at the time struggled to find ways to categorize the rapid and widespread breakdown of the British mind. The solution for soldiers was the invention of a new condition: shell shock. The diagnosis and treatment of similar traumas in women, however, has been largely unexamined by historians.

The psychologist Dr. Charles S. Myers coined the term shell shock in an article for The Lancet in February 1915, after seeing a number of cases of mental distress in soldiers who experienced shells bursting near them at close range. Yet Myers quickly realized that many of the men exhibiting similar symptoms “had never been near an exploding shell, had not been under fire for months, or had never come under fire at all.” He admitted shell shock was “a singularly ill-chosen term,” and the British medical community quickly suggested “war neuroses” instead.  But the public had already latched onto the memorable alliteration, and “shell shock” has remained in popular discourse ever since.

Though a misnomer, historians have argued that shell shock provided a convenient way for doctors to separate the mental traumas exhibited by soldiers from the “effeminate associations of ‘hysteria.’” For centuries, hysteria was thought of as a uniquely female condition, used to explain everything from fainting to sexual desire. Victorian women assumed they were so susceptible to the disease that they carried smelling salts around with them, believing pungent smells could help keep their emotions in check. But while hysteria might have been accepted as an explanation for a Victorian woman’s nerves, it was considered an inadequate, emasculating explanation for a male soldiers’ mental health. Not only did medicine separate the experiences of men and women; the experience of the soldier was understood as uniquely difficult and traumatic.

It makes sense then that there is little evidence showing women at the time being treated for “shell shock”—the male and female minds, and their respective suffering, were considered distinct. But as the historian Susan Grayzel notes, Huntley’s infanticide case and her “air raid shock” diagnosis pose difficult questions. Were air raid shock and shell shock considered similar, or even equivalent, conditions? “Was she in any way akin to those on the battlefields who suffered from similar war or fear-induced mental anguish? … Under these circumstances—and it is hard to know to what extent Elizabeth Huntley was unique … the blurring of the line indicating who exactly was under fire seems fully accomplished.” If a woman at home in London could experience comparable mental distress to those in France and elsewhere, then not only would men no longer be the only ones “under fire;” women’s minds could be seen as equivalent to men’s, and their suffering just as great.         

The solution, it seems, was not to accept that reality: Instead, psychologists and doctors invented yet another new condition, called “civilian war neuroses.” The emphasis of “civilian” in the title is key, reinforcing a dichotomy between the home front and the war front. Medical authorities were willing to admit that those not directly in the line of fire—such as Huntley—were susceptible to the traumas of warfare, but were unwilling to completely equate the mental sufferings of soldiers and civilians.

Huntley was deemed “insane” and “unfit to plead,” and was sentenced to Holloway Prison for adult women in north London, which is still operating today. Little else has been written about her case. But while her resolution may provide some answers for the diagnosis and treatment of civilian women, not all women at the time fit so neatly in the dual categories of shell-shocked solider and hysterical, “civilian” woman. Many women were on the firing line, suffering their own psychological trauma at the front, but their conditions seemed to have largely gone ignored and untreated—a gap in the understanding of women’s experience of war that largely remains in histories to this day.


Hundreds of women worked in France and Belgium as nurses and ambulance drivers, right alongside the male soldiers, or “Tommies.” Their experiences included tremendous violence and physical suffering; their diaries and letters home include descriptions of being fired on by enemy forces, who used the ambulances to gauge distance to the trenches; spending long nights trapped in No Man’s Land; suffering amputations and broken bones from crashes and falling shells; and even getting hit with “secondary gas,” as the acrid fumes clinging to the victims they were helping could burn their eyes.

They also wrote of mental anxieties and traumas that bore striking resemblance to the era’s understanding of “shell shock”—but they largely suffered them without diagnosis or treatment. If a female ambulance driver or nurse could not stand the strain of war, she was simply sent home. Unlike the male soldiers, women were expected to be mentally incapable of handling the trauma of war, and high female attrition was hardly a concern. The tremendous effort put into “curing” men with shell shock—87 percent of British troops diagnosed with the condition were returned to front line service within a month—was due to the army’s need for combat-ready men. The supply of women was not rapidly diminishing.

However, the diaries and letters of women stationed on the front reveal countless instances of women discussing their “shock” and reaction to the emotional stress around them. One woman wrote of a friend who had gone temporarily deaf, and another who had trouble with her vision, as a result of the stress and strain of their work. Several novels, poems, and memoirs also explore the themes of mental instability among women at the front. In Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet, a female ambulance driver is sent home from France on “sick leave” after she witnesses a friend dying at the front, but she receives no medical attention. In The Forbidden Zone, Mary Borden’s memoir of her time as a nurse in France, she describes herself as becoming “delirious” and feeling like she “seemed to be breaking into pieces.” She was sent home because officials felt she was “tired.”

Even with these documents, women’s mental health during the war has received attention from only a handful of historians, with sensational cases like Huntley’s as the exception. Instead, the focus remains on the male experience. Jay Winter argues that historians have turned shell shock “from a diagnosis into a metaphor,” a way to describe the “metaphysical” symptoms of war: soldiers who refused to be soldiers, men who refused to be “men.” Even Elaine Showalter’s seminal 1985 text on hysteria, The Female Malady, devoted its chapter on World War I entirely to men. 

In a letter to her mother, a female ambulance driver wrote about her friend “Tommy,” who “stutters still poor soul.” Tommy suffered from one of the most recognizable symptoms of shell shock—and Tommy was not a male solider, but another female ambulance driver. Her symptoms and her nickname placed her in direct parallel to the Tommies fighting nearby, but her sex denied her similar status and treatment both during the war and afterwards, in histories of the conflict. If the only available terms for describing the mental trauma brought on by war are shell shock—a term only applicable to men—and civilian war neuroses, then women who served at the front have no place in the psychological understanding of warfare. The sublimation of their suffering at the time has led to ignorance of their experiences today.


Time to Use Some of Those Washington State Apples!

apple mosaic tart with salted caramel

apple mosaic tart with salted caramel

My husband likes to joke that every other comment on this site in the month of October is, “Help! I went apple picking and I brought home 20 pounds of apples and I don’t know how to use them up!” It’s not true, of course; it’s every five or six comments. We mostly have a giggle about it because we didn’t know how one could go to an apple grove and not realize that 20 pounds of apples is an impossible amount to munch your way through, no matter how enthusiastic of an apple-eater you might be. Furthermore, seeing as quite often, only one apple type is ripe at a time, you’re not likely even bringing a mix home that might sustain your interest from apple to apple, ad inifinitum. So, you know where this is going. Guys, we went apple picking last weekend and I brought home almost 15 pounds of apples! What do I do with them?

we went apple picking. send help.
peeled, cored, plus one for a toddler

I am kidding, mostly. I have a few ideas for them. The first 6 pounds went to the largest batch of applesauce, ever, half of which is in the freezer for my resident Applesauce Junkie. The next few pounds were munched on, happily. A few pounds are on the table in a bowl, though I think Ramona Quimby must have snuck in because I keep noticing single, tiny bites taken out of each (because the first bite is the tastiest). Next, well, this happened. And once this happens, I think you’re going to be glad you have a bunch of pounds of apples left, because this is the kind of stuff that calls for a repeat performance.

slicing the apples real thin

Are you taking submissions for your new favorite dead simple fall dessert? I understand that competition in this arena is pretty fierce. I’ve already shared Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls this month, and I don’t expect you to throw them over so quickly in the Winning October Bellies and Minds race. If it helps, you can relegate them to the breakfast category. Of course, that still leaves the Simplest Apple Tart. But every five or so years, well, I think there should be a new simple apple tart in town, and I think it should be this one.

rolling out the puffed pastry
fitted into baking sheet
fanning out the apple slices
apple slices, all fanned and pretty
sprinkled and dotted, ready to bake
from the oven

This tart is, in essence, a French apple tart, a simple affair involving puffed pastry, thin slices of apples fanned this way and that before they are dotted with butter, sprinkled with sugar and baked in the oven until they solder together into an puddled-apple-butter-caramel fusion that is entirely greater than the sum of its parts. The only places I take issue with these tarts is in their linear approach to apples (I prefer, and consider it futile to resist, the stunning look and fanning pattern of Lady M’s Apple Tapestry Tart) and in the finishing step, where a little jam (usually apricot or something chosen for its light color, but never its flavor harmony with the fruit below it) is melted to form a glaze that is brushed over the tart after it finishes baking. Apricot jam has no place on my apples. Surely, I reasoned, there are other ways to melt sugar into a glaze, maybe even a deeply cooked, caramelized one with coppery burnt sugar notes and a bit of sea salt and maybe if you let it bake into the apples for a few final minutes in the oven something really wonderful would happen and…

i like it when the sugar rumples
copper salted caramel, like a penny!
brushing the baked tart, gently

The result is a mosaic of fall apple bliss. Here’s where I’m supposed to say “You won’t believe how good just puffed pastry, apples, butter, sugar and salt can taste together,” but friends, I think you would believe me, that you do, you get it. And that is exactly why you have to make this this weekend.

apple mosaic tart with salted caramel
apple mosaic tart with salted caramel
apple mosaic tart with salted caramel

Two years ago: Cauiliflower and Parmesan Cake
Three years ago: Apple Cider Doughnuts
Four years ago: Meatballs and Spaghetti and Molly’s Apple Tarte Tatin
Five years ago: Pumpkin Bread Pudding
Six years ago: Wild Mushroom Galette

Apple Mosaic Tart with Salted Caramel

Puffed pastry is a wonderful thing to keep around in your freezer. It comes at all price points, but I do think that the best ones contain only butter, not shortening. DuFour is my favorite brand; it is an investment that you will be able to taste in every bite and this is the kind of tart where you’ll really be able to tell. If you buy some for this recipe, buy two. You’ll thank me next week, when you need to make it again.

Be ye not intimidated by homemade caramel. I promise, it can be so simple. You don’t need water, corn syrup, a pastry brush or exclamation point-ed nerve-wracking admonitions to not stir. You just put some sugar in an empty saucepan, turn the heat up and wait a few minutes. It will melt; it always does.

Note: The caramel glaze is not like a caramel sauce you would put on ice cream. Those will have more cream in them, to keep them thin. I was going for a firmer one, soft only when melted, and with as clean of a color as possible (not muddied by extra cream). For a traditional salted caramel sauce, use this recipe. For a slightly thinner salted caramel syrup (amazing on pancakes or crepes), use this.

Serves 12 (It should be sliced like this earlier version, not the final one I hastily photographed here.)

Tart base
14-ounce package puff pastry, defrosted in fridge overnight
3 large or 4 medium apples (about 1 1/4 pounds)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into small bits

Salted caramel glaze
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (or salted, but then ease up on the sea salt)
1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt (or half as much table salt)
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Heat your oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet or jelly roll pan with parchment paper. Ideally you would use a 10×15-inch jelly roll pan, as I do here. A smaller pan will make a thicker tart (and you might need fewer apples). In a larger pan, you can still fit a 10×15-inch tart, which I think is the ideal size here.

Lightly flour your counter and lay out your pastry. Flour the top and gently roll it until it fits inside your baking sheet, and transfer it there. Try not to roll it any bigger than you’ll need it, or you’ll have to trim, which means you’ll have to sprinkle the trimmings with cinnamon-sugar and bake them into cookie-sized segments for snacks. And that would be terrible.

Peel the apples and cut them in half top-to-bottom. Remove the cores and stems (I like to use a melon baller and/or a pairing knife). Slice the apples halves crosswise as thinly as you can with a knife, or to about 1/16-inch thickness with a mandoline. Leaving a 1/2-inch border, fan the apples around the tart in slightly overlapping concentric rectangles — each apple should overlap the one before so that only about 3/4-inch of the previous apple will be visible — until you reach the middle. Sprinkle the apples evenly with the first two tablespoons of sugar then dot with the first two tablespoons butter.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the edges of the tart are brown and the edges of the apples begin to take on some color. If you sliced your apples by hand and they were on the thicker side, you might need a little more baking time to cook them through. The apples should feel soft, but dry to the touch. If you puffed pastry bubbles dramatically in any place during the baking time, simply poke it with a knife or skewer so that it deflates. This is fun, I promise.

Meanwhile, about 20 minutes into the baking time, make your glaze. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, melt your last 1/4 cup sugar; this will take about 3 minutes. Cook the liquefied sugar to a nice copper color, another minute or two. Off the heat, add the sea salt and butter and stir until the butter melts and is incorporated. Add the heavy cream and return to the stove over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until you have a lovely, bronzed caramel syrup, just another minute, two, tops. Set aside until needed. You may need to briefly rewarm it to thin the caramel before brushing it over the tart.

After the tart has baked, transfer it to a cooling rack, but leave the oven on. Using very short, gentle strokes, and brushing in the direction that the apples fan to mess up their design as little as possible, brush the entire tart, including the exposed pastry, with the salted caramel glaze. You might have a little leftover. Whatever you do, do not spread it on a sliced apple for a snack. Trust me.

Return the apple tart to the oven for 5 to 10 more minutes, until the caramel glaze bubbles. Let tart cool complete before cutting into 12 squares. Serve plain, with coffee or tea, if you’re feeling grown-up or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if you’re feeling particularly indulgent.