Balaclava (1876) by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, has long been a favourite painting of visitors. Now, the painting is back on display in Gallery 9. The work shows the aftermath of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War and made famous by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem. The charge itself was a costly military mistake during the Battle of Balaclava on 25th October 1854. It was popularised by stories of courage, sacrifice, and duty.
About six hundred and seventy-three light cavalry charged the Russian guns at the head of the valley. Within twenty minutes, one hundred and thirteen cavalrymen had been killed, two hundred and forty-seven badly wounded and four hundred and seventy-five horses slaughtered.
The painting shows the shocked and stunned survivors of the charge regrouping. The central figure is a Hussar, on foot, holding a bloodied sword, a look of shock and disbelief on his face. He has been identified as Private William Henry Pennington, of the 11th Hussars. He took part in the original charge where he was wounded, and later posed for Lady Butler’s painting.
When the painting was first shown, it was highly praised, except for the central figure of Pennington’s Hussar, of which one critic said, “It would have been as well if you, Mr. Pennington, had never come back from the charge. You are theatrical - not dramatic - simply ruinously obtrusive and unreal”, which, quite frankly, is the kind of polarised trollish remark you might expect to see on social media today. The Sunday Times also criticised his pose as being “dazed and drunk with the wine of battle”.
Looking at Private Pennington’s face today, though, we might recognise that stare as someone suffering from Post Traumatic Stress.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition affecting people who have witnessed or experienced severely frightening, stressful or traumatic events. Commonly associated with those serving in the military, it can be triggered by a wide range of experiences from road accidents and personal assault to terrorism.
Symptoms are likely to include reliving the event through nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, feelings often called moral injury - guilt or shame stemming from personal acts of combat; killing or harming others, witnessing such things or failing to prevent acts carried out by others or receiving orders considered to be highly immoral. There is also hyperarousal or feeling anxious and ‘on edge’, which may appear as physical symptoms such as headache, dizziness and chest pains. All of this can lead to self-destructive behaviour and self-harming.
The term PTSD was first coined in 1980 but, before that, the condition had a range of different names and diagnoses and not all were looked on sympathetically.
Forms of PTSD seem to have been recorded throughout history, from Gilgamesh’s reaction to his friend Enkido’s death (2100BC) in the Epic of Gilgamesh, to Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon (440BC). Some experts suggest that there may be evidence that Roman soldiers suffered from forms of PTSD. And in Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV, Part I, the character of Hotspur also seems to suffer from PTSD-like symptoms.
While in the wake of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Church sanctioned Penances for the Norman soldiers dealing with the horrors committed while suppressing the English. The Bishops of Normandy had a sliding scale of penances ( acts of charity or prayers) that could be applied in these instances of moral injury. Anyone who killed another in battle had to do a year’s penance for every man murdered. Or forty days penance for each man wounded. Archers, not knowing how many they killed, were allowed to do penance for three consecutive Lents. And if you just couldn’t remember how many you’d slain you had to do penance one day a week for the rest of your life. On the other hand, if you were rich, you could have your sins absolved in one easy-to-make payment by funding the building of a church.
In 1761, an Austrian physician, Josef Leopold Auenbrugger, was treating soldiers who reported missing home, feeling sad, sleep problems and anxiety. He coined the term, ‘nostalgia’ to describe these symptoms.
By the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856), these same symptoms were recognised by a variety of names such as Irritable Heart, and later as Da Costa Syndrome or Effort Syndrome.
Post-traumatic stress wasn’t just limited to soldiers, though. With the coming of industrialisation and the arrival of the railway, PTSD spread beyond the battlefield. Civilians witnessing horrific rail crashes and accidents were said to be suffering from Railway Shaking or Railway Spine, as doctors thought that concussion of the spine brought on the symptoms. Charles Dickens, after witnessing a railway accident, admitted to experiencing such symptoms.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), physicians often referred to the symptoms as Soldier’s Heart.
At the height of the First World War (1914-18), neurasthenia, or shell-shock, as it became commonly known, was thought to be due to the pressure of shock waves from high explosive shells injuring the brain and nervous system, and that those soldiers suffering from ‘Concussive Shock’ suffered physical injuries that weren’t visible. However, it became clear that there were also those suffering who weren’t near shell explosions. So they came up with two categories; concussive shock and emotional shock, which they thought was due to the incomplete training of the common man as opposed to the career soldier. Unfortunately, a lack of understanding toward sufferers of emotional shock often saw them treated as cowards or malingerers. The symptoms were seen as a side effect of a flawed character, rather than psychological injury and they were often sent back to the front line within a matter of weeks.
In the Second World War (1939-45), so many soldiers were affected with combat or battle fatigue during long deployments that doctors had to admit that psychological weakness had little to do with stress in combat. Thomas Lea’s painting, Two Thousand Yard Stare, for an article in Life Magazine perfectly captures the soldiers’ state of mind.
Vietnam (1955-75) was a different kind of war altogether. It was the first heavily televised war and was fought in the living rooms of America as much as in Vietnam itself. Public empathy shifted and veterans campaigned to get PTSD recognised and included in diagnostic resources.
Nowadays, with the increase in terrorism; the 9/11 attack on the twin towers, the Manchester Arena bombing, and the recent suicide bombing of holiday-makers in Sri Lanka, civilians are now just as likely to suffer the physical and emotional trauma that such events can cause as much as soldiers do.
When Manchester Art Gallery acquired Lady Butler’s painting in 1898, the original gallery description from 1899 stated ; “The horror of the event is grandly illustrated by the figure in the centre of the picture; this man’s brain is trembling in the balance between reason and insanity, and as he stalks on with clenched fist and sword in hand, as though he still saw those murderous Russians gunners. A comrade shouts to him, but heedless of the surroundings, he marches on, his horse lying riderless in the bloody valley below. The red stains on his cross-belt are from Russian hands that have clutched at him in the deadly grapple of man to man, and the enemies’ blood still smokes his sword.”
Compare that with today’s picture text in gallery 9.
How do you think our attitudes have changed?