Hell in my Head, by John F Bennett

This short, yet moving and powerful work, ‘Hell in my Head’, brings to our attention the distress suffered by so many servicemen following the stress and trauma they experienced during two world wars. 

A contrast to the atmosphere of rural Kent

John Bennett, the author of the novel, comes from a large and extended Kentish family. The men in the family had a range of peacetime occupations, from his grandfather’s ownership of several properties in Folkestone, including a large and successful antique shop destroyed in a WW1 Zeppelin raid, to several relatives who laboured on farms around Elham.

Bennett’s accounts of their lives also beautifully and simply convey the atmosphere of rural Kent as I remember it whilst growing up near Maidstone soon after WW2.

From emotional shifts to lifelong psychoses

Although only one of Bennett’s family members perished, their widely differing wartime experiences inflicted varying patterns of suffering on the survivors. These ranged from persistent headaches and damaged lungs, to a range of mental distresses, be it emotional shifts or lifelong psychoses, often not in any obvious proportion to the apparent severities of the various particular traumas they had endured.

Prior to the war, the entire family seemed to be in sound physical and mental health, yet none, not even the author’s mother, who served in WW2 balloon crews and dragged survivors from a crashed bomber, seemed completely to escape some degree of subsequent mental distress and a reduction in their ability to cope with life’s vicissitude.

Opportunities to learn about war trauma

John Bennett served for many years in the Territorial Army during which he grasped opportunities to learn about war trauma and the developing methods for its treatment. He also learned at first hand about the difficulties of ‘adjustment’ on his return to civilian life after volunteering to serve in Kosovo. He remains involved with the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, and by assisting ex-servicemen.

 How to handle the transition from military to civilian life

The final message of Bennett’s book is encouraging: ever faster progress is being made with the psychological alleviation of mental distress following traumatic military experiences. These include ways that have been found to ‘park’ traumatic memories in the parts of the mind most able to absorb them safely, and the much improved provision of services aimed at allowing servicemen to handle the transition from military to civilian life smoothly. 

‘Hell in my Head’ can be purchased here.