Shell Shock in WWI – a guest post at English Historical Fiction Authors

Source: Wikimedia
Source: Wikimedia

Now working on my third novel set during WWI, I’ve had plenty of time to consider the horrific conditions and consequences for those who served. With trenches that were hellholes, deafening, bone-shaking noise, inadequate equipment, gas attacks, and the prospect of death from shelling at any moment, it’s hardly surprising so many soldiers suffered from shell shock. Given this year’s centennial commemorations for World War One, it seems fitting to explore the topic.

English Historical Fiction Authors is hosting my post on WWI shell shock today. Here’s the link.

Many thanks to Debra Brown, author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, for her hospitality.


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, 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.

Browsing my bookmarks

After six years of collecting bookmarks related to various bits of research for my writing, I have a lengthy list of WWI, WWII and Depression era URLs. A few are favourites but most were used to satisfy a particular and momentary interest which may or may not have withstood the editing process. In my current mood of musing on next steps, I am revisiting these bookmarks. Perhaps inspiration will strike. At the very least, I can consider the value of what I’ve collected.

Here’s a few I’ve found so far that may interest others.

Canadian Letters and Images – a wonderful collection of correspondence, diaries, photographs, postcards and memorabilia organized according to time period: Pre-1914, WWI, WWII, Korea and Post-Korea. Although these are mainly Canadian letters, they are a marvellous source for understanding how every day lives were affected by war.

Wikiquotes – in particular, statements made by Adolf Hitler in speeches from 1923 to 1945. Shocking to see what world political and military leaders were prepared to ignore.

BBC History site – an article about shell shock with brief summaries of battlefield breaking points, medical symptoms of shell shock, defining trauma and possible cures. Beyond this article, BBC History offers sections on WWI, WWII, Nazi Genocide and the Cold War.

WW2 People’s War – another BBC site with the following purpose: “The BBC’s WW2 People’s War project ran from June 2003 to January 2006. The aim of the project was to collect the memories of people who had lived and fought during World War Two on a website; these would form the basis of a digital archive which would provide a learning resource for future generations.” Oodles of stories organized by geography. The BBC also has an ‘on this day‘ search capability to discover important historical happenings on any given date.

American Music, Movies and Literature timeline – a site listing movies, music and literature by time period with posters from popular movies, links to author biographical information and audio files for various songs and musical numbers.

Camp X – a website all about Camp X a significant WWII spy training facility; a compilation of pictures and stories from a time when Camp X bristled with instructors training agents for overseas missions and the Hydra facility was in place to receive and decode countless critical military messages.

Canada at War – “This website is dedicated to the memory of the tremendous Canadian contribution in both World Wars, and a place of remembrance for all our fallen since 1914.” A collection of photos, stories, battle summaries, book lists and a forum for questions and discussion about WWI and WWII. Although the focus is Canadian the information is pertinent to anyone studying either of these world wars.

CBC Digital Archives – radio recordings from various times in Canadian history; WWII section was of particular interest for me providing material for one particular scene about the Dieppe raid in a novel I’ve written called Unravelled. – an amazing and comprehensive site on WWI. Facts and figures, personal narratives, source documents, photos, timelines, information about the home front, famous players in the war, weapons, battles and so on.

More to follow 🙂