Historical essay
“Shock from Loss”: The Reality of Grief in the First World War

“Shock from Loss”: The Reality of Grief in the First World War

On October 24, 1918, fifty-eight-year-old Elizabeth was admitted to the City of London Mental Hospital by her husband.1 He stated that she had been suffering for the past fourteen months with “shock from loss of her two sons in the War.”2 He further explained that her younger son had been killed in action, and her eldest son was now preparing to depart with his battalion. According to notes made at the time of her admission, Elizabeth was “noisy and incoherent in her conversation, she has auditory hallucinations and the voice says, ‘don’t you believe it’. She is also deluded. For instance, she talks to the Kaiser and has promised him not to strike back.”3

According to her husband, she had been exhibiting signs of depression since hearing about her son’s death in combat and had “been unmanageable for two days and refuses food and medicine.”4 Although she was frequently described as being “frail” or in “poor health,” Elizabeth survived in the City of London Mental Hospital until well after 1930. She never left the asylum, however, and it doesn’t appear from her case notes that she ever recovered. Doctors continue to describe her as “depressed” and “emotional” decades after her admission.5

The First World War thoroughly and permanently disrupted the traditional mourning rituals that western societies typically performed in the wake of a death. With the massive numbers of war deaths reported every week, the public spectacles associated with Victorian mourning, including black wardrobes and limited social activities, were simply no longer tenable. Scholars such as Sarah Tarlow and Pat Jalland have argued that the war accelerated a shift in mourning practices away from the flamboyant public to the “intensely personal,” leading to “minimal public expressions of private grief.”6 But while these practices may have grown less visible, they were still a critical component of the mourning process.

Two women and two men sit for a photograph. The women are dressed in heavy black gowns with veils.
Royal mourners dressed to honor King Wilhelm IV of Prussia. (The Lost Gallery/Flickr)

Public displays of mourning, such as dress and memorial services, did — and do — more than acknowledge a personal loss. They denote the public acceptance of a person’s grief and their changed status in society. As Lucie Whitmore has noted, mourning dress provided an immediate visual symbol of a war widow’s changed status or of a family’s loss.7 Clothing and public ceremonies also provided social cues to others that mourners were attempting to navigate new social identities as well as their private grief, and assisted in public acknowledgement of their suffering.

There is also a political component to grief, particularly in the context of war, when the relationship between civilians and the state are renegotiated. During the First World War, women’s private grief over the loss of their male relatives afforded them special status in the public sphere. In the US, Gold Star Mothers lobbied for a federally sponsored pilgrimage to allow mothers and widows who did not remarry to visit the graves of their sons and husbands overseas.8 In France, pacifist war widows joined forces to lobby against future wars.9 In Britain, the granting of suffrage to women over the age of thirty showed that the sacrifice of mothers was, by and large, held in higher political esteem than the service of younger women who had actually served in the war.

However, there were strict, if generally unspoken, conditions to this public acceptance of grief, especially women’s grief. Women were expected to sacrifice their sons and husbands to the military so that they could become soldiers in the care of the state. This transfer of custody needed to be uncontested, especially during the war itself, when maintaining morale among the civilian population was critical to the war economy. The transformation from son to soldier needed to be complete. Women reclaiming their children in death through excessive public grief threatened to disrupt the war effort by demolishing new identities and barriers that war had created: women were expected to give their sons to the war effort so they could become soldiers, and to take pride in their sons’ departure for war.

This public participation in the war was symbolic. Grieving widows and mothers became emblematic of the nation’s grief, and the portrayal of stoic, brave mothers became the standard to which individual women were held. Though practices and displays of grief may have varied according to class, location, or ethnicity, women were expected to meet the news of loss with endurance, their pain tempered by patriotic pride. There was an expectation of quiet, dignified grief. Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture Grieving Parents, completed in 1932, embodies this ideal: the mother figure is bowed, her face obscured, while the father figure looks up and out, his gaze falling on the grave of Kollwitz’s son Peter, who was killed in battle in 1914. Both figures are stoic in their grief.

Two statues showing a mother figure kneeling and bowed over, her face obscured, and a father figure also kneeling looking up and out, his gaze falling on the grave of Kollwitz’s son Peter, who was killed in battle in 1914.
“Käthe Kollwitz: The Grieving Parents,” a memorial to Kollwitz’ son Peter, now in Vladslo, Diksmuide, West Flanders, Belgium. (Wikimedia | Public domain)

Elizabeth, whose case is described above, was not silent in her grief. Because she didn’t practice the acceptable forms of grief and mourning determined by society and the politics of the day, and was clearly incapable of doing so, she was deemed mad. Medically speaking, it would seem that part of her was able to accept the loss, as evidenced by her attempt to speak to the Kaiser and her promises not to “strike back.” Elizabeth clearly realized that her son had been lost in the war against Germany, and she addressed the Kaiser. Perhaps this was because he had been so reviled in the British press that it was easier to hold him up as the villain in the story of her son’s death. Perhaps she understood that the Kaiser was the head of the Army that her son had been fighting in death.

Yet I can’t help but wonder, in reading Elizabeth’s case notes, if her speaking with the Kaiser was a kind of bargaining — if she promised “not to strike back,” did she think her other son would be kept safe? Or that her dead son might be returned? There still seems to be a part of her mind that refused to accept that her son was gone forever. It is only recently that scholars and medical professionals have begun to explore a richer and more nuanced explanation for “voice-hearing,” like the kind that was reported in Elizabeth’s case. As Angela Woods explains, voice-hearing is very much an interpersonal experience, that reflects relationships around the patient and is “fundamentally constituted through a network of social relations.”10

Though doctors largely saw Elizabeth’s voice-hearing as proof positive of her madness, there is also the potential to hear the voice saying “Don’t you believe it” as an expression of her deepest desire to have her son restored to her, of how thoroughly her world had been destroyed by the message that her son was no longer present in it. Without a grave to visit, or a body to mourn, it must have been almost inconceivable to accept that her child was gone.

The historic aspects and practices of grief and mourning are inarguably significant. They help us see similarities in the practices by which humans across time and around the world express the pain of loss, and how they go about rebuilding their identities after a particular social, personal, or familial bond has been severed by death. But we generally study these processes when they are complete and successful. We very seldom discuss the trauma of unprocessed grief, of grief that is so all-consuming that it traps the grieving person in their moment of loss for the long-term.

A drawing of a girl and boy standing over a grave, dropping flowers on it.
Guerre 1914-15-16. Journée nationale des orphelins. (Paris : Siège Social du Comité/Library of Congress

Part of the reason is because we, as narrative beings, are uncomfortable without some kind of closure. Another part of it, at least for me, is the utter inability of language to describe the loss that people like Elizabeth endured. In her case notes, it seems very likely that she was not only mourning the loss of one son, but preparing herself for the loss of the other son, who would shortly be leaving to fight. Her fear, pain, and grief are immediate and present in her case notes, making her loss as tangible today as it must have been in 1918.

The remaining part is the overwhelming indifference with which her grief was met. Women’s emotions have always been subjected to excessive scrutiny and distrust, and their expressions of grief are no different. It would be nearly three decades before Erich Lindemann’s “Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief” provided the language to discuss the needs of those suffering from debilitating grief.11

But even provided with the knowledge of what grief can do to people, and how profoundly it can shape and mark a life, we still — as people, as societies, and as nations — fail consistently to recognize the grief of those whose behavior does not conform with our culture, or whose grieving complicates our political opinions and outlook. Propaganda and media portrayed the grief of widows and mothers as rational and controlled by their sense of patriotism and their son’s sense of duty. Acknowledging Elizabeth’s grief — and that of the many other women admitted to asylums as a result of their grief — challenged not only these prevailing messages, but the war which made them necessary.

Grief changes us fundamentally. It causes evolutions in the brain which neuroscientists are still trying to understand.12 It changes our identity and the way we relate to those around us. It is perhaps the most personal and self-defining of emotions. But, in being unique and somehow inexpressible, it is also an emotion that defines our humanity; as Charles Dickens noted, “life is made of ever so many partings welded together.”13 The grief of others, no matter how inexpressible and overwhelming, is something nearly all of us can understand in a way that goes beyond language, culture, or custom. But culture or custom also defines whose grief is worthy of recognition.

Women’s grief has the power to call into question the need for their male relations’ death in war, and forces us to reckon, even today, with the fact that war not only kills — it destroys those who are left behind, as well. In order to propagate the First World War, and, indeed, every war that came before or after it, women’s grief must be contained, behind asylum walls, within homes, and in public discourse and media, all of which demand their continued silence and complicity in order to endure. Recognizing the enormity of their grief forces us to reckon with their humanity, as well as the inhumane way in which their grief was treated.


  1. These closed records were accessed through special permission of the London Metropolitan Archives. The name of the patient has been changed to protect her identity. Return to text.
  2. London Metropolitan Archives, City of London Mental Hospital, Patient Records, Female Case Books, 1918 Oct – 1920 Jan, CLA/001/B/01/023. Return to text.
  3. Ibid. Return to text.
  4. Ibid. Return to text.
  5. Ibid. Return to text.
  6. Sarah Tarlow, “An Archeology of Remembering: Death, Bereavement and the First World War,” Cambridge Archeological Journal, 7 no. 1 (1997), 105 (105-121); Pat Jalland, “Death and Bereavement in the First World War: the Australian Experience,” Endeavour, 38 no. 2 (2014), 70 (70-76). Return to text.
  7. Lucie Whitmore, “‘A Matter of Individual Opinion and Feeling’: The Changing Culture of Mourning Dress in the First World War,” Women’s History Review, DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2017.1292631. Return to text.
  8. For more on this, see Constance Potter, “World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, Part 1,” Genealogy Notes, 31(2): 1999; and WWI Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, Part 2. It is also important to note that all mothers were not seen as equal. Black women were sent on a segregated ship to visit their male relatives’ graves. Return to text.
  9. For more information, see Erika Kuhlman, Of Little Comfort: War Widows, Fallen Soldiers, and the Remaking of the Nation after the Great War (New York: New York University Press, 2012). These women’s work was highly censored during the war, but those restrictions were mostly lifted once peace had been declared, when their voices were not actively threatened the war itself. Return to text.
  10. Angela Woods, “On Shame and Voice-Hearing,” Medical Humanities 43, no. 4 (2017), 254. Return to text.
  11. Erich Lindemann, “Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 101 (1944), 141-148. Return to text.
  12. Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 261. Return to text.
  13. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (London: Penguin, 1998 reprint), 222. Return to text.

Bridget Keown is a lecturer in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is leading their gender and science initiative. She received her doctorate in history from Northeastern University, and her MA in Imperial and Commonwealth History from King's College London. Her dissertation focuses on the experience and treatment of war trauma among British and Irish women during the First World War. She is also researching the history of kinship among gay and lesbian groups during the AIDS outbreak in the United States and Ireland.

1 thought on ““Shock from Loss”: The Reality of Grief in the First World War

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      Dear Bridget Keown, I have eagerly read all of your posts on the First World War. This one is especially poignant and meaningful to me. I am advising a bachelor’s thesis on racialized post WWI trauma for African-Americans. As an Africanist, I am less familiar with the US-based materials and am dreadfully grateful for the reference to the Gold Star Mothers and the work of Constance Potter. Thank-you for your work.

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