Shell Shock: The Psychological Impact of War by Wendy Holden

Shell Shock: The Psychological Impact of War by Wendy Holden
Shell Shock.

Here we have a morbidly fascinating, if terribly poignant, account of shell shock (i.e. PTSD) in World War I. British journalist and novelist Wendy Holden had this published back in 1998, with an accompanying documentary series to boot, and it sheds remarkable insights into the horrifying world of warfare.

World War I was a new type of conflict, one that had never been seen before. With devastating new technology merged with appalling trench action, many soldiers were left psychologically destroyed. The likes of the British army, so expectant of mindless subservience to the Empire, were left unimpressed. But as tens of thousands of troops lost the ability to see, walk, and talk, there began a slow changing of attitudes as a new era of psychoanalysis beckoned.

Shell Shock

Shell shock image of World War I troops
The soldier on the bottom left, at an Australian infirmary at Ypres in 1917, Belgium, shows the trademark 1,000 yard stare indicative of shell shock.

The full effects of shell shock will be unknown to new generations. But from 1914 to 1918, many millions of men were exposed to carnage so intensely horrific it could lead to a severe psychological breakdown. This became known as shell shock, a phrase coined by British physician Charles Samuel Myers (1873-1946) – it’s what we know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) now.

At the time, mental health wasn’t well understood – anyone who appeared to be malfunctioning was usually bundled off to a lunatic asylum. After the outbreak of WWI, when thousands of men began behaving erratically, army officials believed mass cowardice was on their hands. For the British army (which is the central focus for this book), in stepped Myers to study the cases. He even coined the term “shell shock”, which he came to regret as it’s a misnomer.

Many in the British army refused to accept it. But faced with tens of thousands of cases, it had to do something to get the men back to the front. With shell shock still a fresh concept, the general belief was most of the men had a case of cowardice or a desire to malinger. This obstinate refusal to drop anachronistic ideals led to court martials. Many men were shot for seditious behaviour, a quite disgraceful record for British history.

At a hospital in Devon, doctors began recording shell shock patients – as you can see above, the results are frightening. Many army officials in the higher ranks were disgusted by men like that, believing them to be faking, or just useless human beings. Where was the steely British reserve the country was renowned for? Why was this happening now, rather than in previous engagements (such as the Boer War from 1899-1902)?

The reality was the British army was doing absolutely everything within its power to induce shell shock. Asides from getting bombarded 24/7 by hundreds of thousands of shells from German forces, troops were constantly stuck in freezing cold mud, regularly saw their friends getting blown up, had to sleep near rotting corpses (there wasn’t room to bury everyone), and endure the likes of the Somme (one of the greatest disasters in military history).

This is what Shell Shock covers in poignant, gritty, fascinating detail. As doctors tried to get their heads around what was going on (there are some bizarre interpretations taken from Freud, such as warfare promoting homoeroticism and inducing shell shock), tens of thousands of troops suffered shocking physical transformations.

World War I isn’t the central focus, but it’s certainly the most fascinating. For the British army, it was an unprecedented outbreak of insubordination. But, in time, attitudes had to change. The work details it all, right up to modern warfare (circa 1998). It’s a remarkable historical record and a highly recommended read.

Accompanying Documentary

In 1998, to support the launch of Holden’s book, there was a two part TV series on Channel 4 (a British TV broadcaster over here). The first episode concerns World War I. Detailed closely here is some of the incredible footage of shell shock sufferers at Netley hospital.

Particularly fascinating for us is 27 year old Corporal Anderson who was suffering from a “hysterical dancing gait”. He couldn’t walk normally, so developed a rhythmic pattern of “dancing” backwards a step – his mind accepted this and it became his weirdly elegant solution to getting about. After being cured at hospital, he struggled to even replicate the dancing gait.

Now, you would hope after the mayhem of World War I that greater understanding would be in place by the time World War II came around. Sadly not, as you can watch in the second episode from the series. Again, this is highly recommended viewing if you don’t have time to read Shell Shock. But for anyone keen to understand the full psychoanalytical nature of the disorder, then get the book right away.

2 comments

    • The Ministry of Defence started to issue pardons circa 2006. Apparently, 306 men were shot for “cowardice” during the conflict. In the fourth series of Blackadder, it’s shown how idiotic the whole stiff upper lip process was. Plus, the whole war.

      Liked by 1 person

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