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Invisible Wounds


World War I was known as the “Great War” or the “War to End All Wars.” It began 100 years ago, in 1914, and the U.S. entered the conflict in 1917.

That year, a young man from Grand Forks named Leon Brown joined the U.S. Army as an infantryman, after leaving his studies at the University High School. Brown became a machine-gunner and went to the battlefields in France for the American Expeditionary Force.

“While in action on one of the front lines” in early 1918, wrote the UND Quarterly Journal , Leon Brown “was severely injured by shell shock, which affected the heart, a type of ‘hidden wound’ so often suffered in this war.”

Private Brown was evacuated to a Red Cross hospital in France, where the nurses “kept him alive for three nights when . . . he thought he would die, as he hovered between life and death.” After recovering somewhat, Brown was sent home.

It was on this date in 1918 that the Grand Forks Herald reported that Private Leon Brown had given a speech at the St. Andrew’s Society Picnic in Lincoln Park, telling of his “experiences as an American gunner in the battlefront in France . . . and how the Red Cross served him after his health had given out.”

After spending several weeks at home, the shell-shock symptoms returned and he went east for more treatment at an Army hospital in Maryland. After five months he came home again, and even then, his heart problems caused him to be “confined to his bed” for a week.

Leon Brown was in a photograph accompanying a Literary Digest story about shell-shocked fighters who had suffered “invisible wounds” and were coming back home “broken within by the ravages of modern warfare.” They were the “war’s worst wrecks,” but had “no outward signs of injury,” yet required care until “full health” might return.

Doctors were unsure if shell shock was something physical, psychological, or some combination of the two. Physicians clearly saw the concussions and deafness that came from exploding artillery-shells, and they saw men whose nerves had been shattered and “their minds badly affected” by their war trauma. A soldier’s heart dynamics . . . blood pressure [and] pulse rate … seemed to be altered.

Modern war with “high explosives and rapid fire” machine guns and the “inhumanities of asphyxiating gases and liquid fire” caused “mental fatigue.” The “extreme shock” and “intense nervous strain” of seeing comrades killed in the trenches caused some to become unhinged. “Continued tragedy wears down personality,” an author wrote, “when a man has for three days been fighting almost without interruption, [and] has had practically no sleep with but little to eat.”

How could these veterans return to a normal civilian life when the war ended? The answer was unclear for shell-shocked Leon Brown in 1918, just as it is today for those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as it is now known.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “2,000 Turn Out To Make R.C. Picnic Success,” Grand Forks Herald , June 20, 1918, p. 12.

“St. Andrews’ Picnic To Be Big Affair,” Grand Forks Herald , June 15, 1918, p. 5.

“Leon Brown,” Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota , vol. 10, p. 282.

“Leon Brown Coming Home,” Grand Forks Herald , May 14, 1918.

“Leon Brown Is Ill With Heart Trouble,” Grand Forks Herald , November 19, 1918, p. 10.

“Brown Gone East,” Grand Forks Herald , July 13, 1918, p. 5.

“Leon Brown May Get Discharge From Army,” Grand Forks Herald , September 25, 1918, p. 10.

“Invisible Wounds,” Literary Digest , November 9, 1918, p. 20.

“Elton Says “Y” Work Essential,” Grand Forks Herald , June 15, 1918, p. 2.

“Men From Trenches in Hospital Here,” New York Times , February 19, 1918, p. 13.

“Preparing to Care for Shell-Shocked Men,” New York Times , June 16, 1918, p. 62.

“Seek Higher Morale For Soldiers’ Kin,” New York Times , August 18, 1918, p. 23

“War Has Made Many Medical Problems,” New York Times , March 3, 1918, p. 10.

Helen Hoffman, “What War Has Taught Doctors About Nerves,” Minneapolis Tribune , January 26, 1919, p. D3.

Dr. Matthew Friedman, “Soldier’s Heart and Shell Shock: Past Names For PTSD,” Frontline , PBS, pbs.org, accessed on May 27, 2014.