In WWI They Called It Shell Shock

WWI was brutal, disgusting, soul numbing and terrifying. In between battles, the war was a mixture of grinding work and boredom in conditions so horrible we can hardly bear to imagine them now. Men who succumbed to mental distress – labelled ‘shell shock’ in 1915 because it was thought to be caused by the shock of exploding shells – were variously considered slackers, frauds and wimps while the medical profession had little understanding of conditions now referred to as post traumatic stress and even less empathy. Officers condemned some men to the firing squad and sent others home in disgrace.

Researching for stories set in WWI, I discovered a few articles on the topic such as Shell Shock during World War One  and another written in 1917 by Grafton Elliot Smith who was at that time Dean of the Manchester Faculty of Medicine. The 1917 paper is interesting because it deals seriously and scientifically with the nature and treatment of shell shock and urges changes to the medical profession in order to train doctors to deal with something that is just as much a disease as smallpox.

According to Smithsonian.com, at the end of the war the British Ministry of Pensions “had been left with the care of 63,296 neurological cases; ominously, this number would rise, not fall, as the years passed, and by 1929—more than a decade after the conclusion of the war—there were 74,867 such cases, and the ministry was still paying for such rehabilitative pursuits as basket making and boot repairing. An estimated 10 percent of the 1,663,435 military wounded of the war would be attributed to shell shock”.

Siegfried Sassoon, poet and author, suffered shell shock and spent months recovering. He wrote a poem called Survivors that is more compelling than anything else I’ve found.

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain  
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.  
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—  
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.  
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed  
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—  
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud  
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…  
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;  
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

As a side note – in my third novel, titled Time & Regret, one of the main characters spends some time in a ‘rest home’ suffering from shell shock.

This post was originally written for my first blog One Writer’s Voice. It seems timely to repeat some of those earlier posts as we commemorate the centennial of WWI.

2 thoughts on “In WWI They Called It Shell Shock”

  1. “History is an exercise in imagination.”

    However hard I try I cannot imagine how bad WW1 would have been like for an individual. No wonder my father said nothing. In a new TV series in the UK on railways, this time in WW1, Michael Portillo explains how the UK went from a shortage of shells to one day near the end of the war when nearly one million shells were fired at the Germans in a single day. In WW2 artillery would have been helped by bombing to delivery high explosive to destroy the enemy. One hundred years later there are missiles and rockets and bombs too powerful to use. He also gave details of the ambulance trains designed for relative ease for 400 which actually took up to 1000 injured soldiers to hospitals in the UK. Apparently one German platoon started WW1 10 hours early on the French border demanding access to French railways. But for faulty explosives set in railway tunnels more of the Germans advance by rail through Belgium would have been halted.

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