Shell Shock

Definition of Shell shock

The World War I name for what is known today as post-traumatic stress, this is a psychological disorder that develops in some individuals who have had major traumatic experiences (and, for example, have been in a serious accident or through a war). The person is typically numb at first but later has symptoms including depression, excessive irritability, guilt (for having survived while others died), recurrent nightmares, flashbacks to the traumatic scene, and overreactions to sudden noises. Post-traumatic stress became known as such in the 70s due to the adjustment problems of some Vietnam veterans.

 

Shell Shock during World War One

Medical symptoms

Arthur Hubbard was one of millions of men who suffered psychological trauma as a result of their war experiences. Symptoms ranged from uncontrollable diarrhoea to unrelenting anxiety. Soldiers who had bayoneted men in the face developed hysterical tics of their own facial muscles. Stomach cramps seized men who knifed their foes in the abdomen. Snipers lost their sight. Terrifying nightmares of being unable to withdraw bayonets from the enemies’ bodies persisted long after the slaughter.

The dreams might occur ‘right in the middle of an ordinary conversation’ when ‘the face of a Boche that I have bayoneted, with its horrible gurgle and grimace, comes sharply into view’, an infantry captain complained. An inability to eat or sleep after the slaughter was common. Nightmares did not always occur during the war. World War One soldiers like Rowland Luther did not suffer until after the armistice when (he admitted) he ‘cracked up’ and found himself unable to eat, deliriously re-living his experiences of combat.

…everyone had a ‘breaking point’: weak or strong, courageous or cowardly – war frightened everyone witless…

These were not exceptional cases. It was clear to everyone that large numbers of combatants could not cope with the strain of warfare. By the end of World War One, the army had dealt with 80,000 cases of ‘shell shock’. As early as 1917, it was recognised that war neuroses accounted for one-seventh of all personnel discharged for disabilities from the British Army. Once wounds were excluded, emotional disorders were responsible for one-third of all discharges. Even more worrying was the fact that a higher proportion of officers were suffering in this way. According to one survey published in 1917, while the ratio of officers to men at the front was 1:30, among patients in hospitals specialising in war neuroses, the ratio of officers to men was 1:6. What medical officers quickly realised was that everyone had a ‘breaking point’: weak or strong, courageous or cowardly – war frightened everyone witless.

 

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