‘My Dear Old Basil’: Letters from a Shell-Shocked Soldier

04 December 2015

History | War and Conflict

The 4th December marks the anniversary of the publication of a paper entitled ‘The Repression of War Experience’, presented to the Royal School of Medicine in 1917 by W. H. Rivers. Rivers was a psychiatrist and neurologist, mostly known for his work with soldiers suffering from shell-shock, both during and following World War I. His paper advocated the best course of treatment for sufferers of shell-shock was for them to face their painful memories, rather than adopting an ‘ostrich-like policy of attempting to banish them from the mind.’ 

In 1917, Rivers was working at Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. This hospital received many casualties of the war who, because of their horrific experiences in the trenches, required treatment for what was known as shell-shock – a condition we may now refer to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Among the residents at this facility during 1917 were the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Owen’s disturbing, yet poignant, poem ‘Mental Cases’, was written based on his experiences of shell shocked soldiers at the hospital. An extract of this poem follows:


Another patient at this facility in 1917 was Lt. J H Butlin, whose personal papers are contained within our First World War: Visual Perspectives and Narratives collection. His correspondence includes many letters written to his friend ‘Dear Old Basil’ and give an extraordinary insight into his life; not only his experiences in the trenches, but also his day to day military life in both the UK and France, the latter including his attendance at military dances and reports of his many romantic endeavours! On a more serious note, Butlin completed two tours of duty in the trenches on the front line and it is clear to see a deterioration in attitude and general state of mind in his continuing letters to Basil. 

Butlin arrived at Craiglockhart Hospital on the 5th May 1917 and wrote to Basil about his first impressions;  

Image © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

“It [Craiglockhart] is a magnificent Hydra, standing in palatial grounds, fitted with all the comforts that man’s ingenuity can contrive; swimming baths, billiards, gardening, bowls, tennis, fretwork etc.”

(To see this document in the collection, click here.)

This environment could not have been more different to the ‘perfect hell’ of the trenches he had departed from, following a gruelling experience fighting in the Battle of Arras fought between 9th April and the 16th May. In a later letter he describes the consultation he had with ‘the doctor’. 


     Image © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 


“I have been interviewed by the doctor: he is a clever man, a bit of a philosopher, an eminent nerve specialist and somewhat of a crank!  He extracts from you your life history with such questions as - is there any nervous trouble in your family? Have you been ill as a boy? Where were you at school? Do you smoke much?”

(To see this document in the collection, click here.)

It is perhaps not too great a speculation to believe that ‘the doctor’ who consulted with Butlin may have been W.H. Rivers himself, exercising his technique of encouraging soldiers suffering with shell-shock to communicate, rather than close in on themselves.

To read more about Lt. Butlin and World War I in general, explore our First World War: Visual Perspectives and Narratives collection. (Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence.)

About the Author

Hayley High

Hayley High

Since joining Adam Matthew as an editorial assistant in September 2014, I have worked on a number of varied and exciting projects including Popular Medicine in America 1800-1900, African American Communities, Mass Tourism, East India Company and Colonial America. My academic background is in history and sociology, with a particular interest in the histories of crime and medicine.