A Short History of Shell Shock by Suzie Grogan

Charles Myers

Charles Myers

‘Shell Shock’ is a term that is used loosely now. A lottery winner is ‘shell shocked’ at the size of their win, or a footballer similarly affected having scored the winning goal in a cup final. It is actually a term first coined by Charles Myers, in an article in The Lancet in 1915, and almost immediately dismissed by him as an expression that was useless to describe the many and various symptoms experienced by men traumatised at the Front during the First World War. But then,  this war was a whole new experience requiring a new language, and a consistent failure to understand the psychological phenomenon that was ‘shell shock’ led to tens of thousands of men living out the rest of their lives in silence, unable to find the words to frame the horror they had witnessed.


But if doctors had looked back into history they might have expected the development of mechanised warfare to produce such casualties, if not in such numbers. Histories of wars back to the Fifth Century BC have described soldiers breaking down under the stress of battle.  It is even enshrined in the works of Shakespeare, here in a speech by Hotspur’s wife Kate from Henry IV Pt1:

Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,

And start so often when thou sit’st alone?

Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks;

And given my treasures and my rights of thee

To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?

In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d,

And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars;

…Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,

And thus hath so bestirr’d thee in thy sleep,

That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow

Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;

And in thy face strange motions have appear’d,

Such as we see when men restrain their breath…

In wars throughout the 19th century men described symptoms of melancholy, or palpitations.  In civilian life, the rapid development of the railways and increasing number of railway accidents led to something called ‘railway spine’, symptoms of which we would now diagnose as a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. French doctors had long since recognised that men could suffer ‘hysterical’ symptoms, including mutism, paralysis, trembling and blindness, stemming from a psychological distress. But in Britain these symptoms were reserved for women – it was simply not ‘manly’ to break down in such a way and the public school system, as well as youth movements such as the scouts, promoted the ‘heroic ideal’ and ideas of duty that led military men to believe that no man would lose his nerve in the service of his country.

Still from 'War Neuroses: Netley Hospital (1917), pt. 1 of 5' Wellcome Collection (CC BY-NC-SA)

Still from ‘War Neuroses: Netley Hospital (1917), pt. 1 of 5’ Wellcome Collection (CC BY-NC-SA)

So when thousands started to break down within just a few weeks of the war beginning, the military establishment was at a loss. Surely it must be due to proximity to a shell blast – the percussion damaging the brain? So the term ‘shell shock’ seemed appropriate; but it soon became clear that men, nowhere near a shell blast, were experiencing symptoms.  They  included anxiety, paralysis, limping and muscle contractions, blindness and deafness and the nightmares and the flashbacks we commonly associate with the traumatised Tommy. What then was the cause?

This lack of understanding resulted in diagnosis and treatment that was class based and riven with inequality.  Young officers were more likely to suffer from ‘neurasthenic ’symptoms, such as depression, nightmares and dissociation, and would be sent to a hospital with a more benign treatment regime in comfortable surroundings. The ranks would be ‘hysterical’, with many experimented on with a new treatment – ‘Faradization’. This was the forerunner of Electroconvulsive Therapy and was a form of torture meant to bully a man back to the trenches. Little follow up work was done to find success or relapse rates and although 80,000 men were formally diagnosed with shell shock during the war, this is a gross underestimate. It doesn’t include men who also had physical wounds, or those that broke down post war, ending their lives in county lunatic asylums or in the care of long-suffering families. Recent study suggests 30 to 50 per cent of troops were shell shocked, with some psychiatrists of the opinion that anyone who has experienced conflict will be in some way psychologically damaged by it. After all, service personnel still break down and the MoD continues to struggle to find a way to support the men and women of the armed forces effectively.

In writing Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Mental Health I wanted to find out more about these men, their families and the communities they came home to. My research leads me to believe that the nation as a whole was traumatised, dealing as it did with four years of war, brought to the doorsteps of British towns and cities for the first time by Zeppelin and Gotha aircraft. They then  had to live through a devastating outbreak of deadly Spanish influenza and of course, the overwhelming grief at the loss of more than 700,000 young men. What I discovered explains why we feel such a close affinity with the war even 100 years on – these were our parents, grandparents and great grandparents; our near kin. The aftermath resonates in us all, echoing on into the 21st century.

Shell Shocked Britain by Suzie Grogan

Shell Shocked Britain by Suzie Grogan

You can meet Suzie on Wednesday 29th October, 7pm, at Waterstones, Leeds. The evening will consist of a talk, question and answer session and signing opportunity. Full details are here. This is a free event but please book your place by registering in advance at Waterstones Leeds or book on Eventbrite, here.

You can find out more about Suzie Grogan on her website. She tweets @keatsbabe

Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health is published by Pen & Sword History.  See www.facebook.com/shellshockedbritain or follow @ShellShockedGB on twitter for more details.



Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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