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World One War: Shellshock

Updated on March 17, 2011

Photographs and Art Showing Shell shock

'Doughboy' Shell Shock Victim 1918
'Doughboy' Shell Shock Victim 1918
The true horrors of War
The true horrors of War
George Grosz 'Fit for active Service' 1916-1917
George Grosz 'Fit for active Service' 1916-1917
Australian Soldier with the 'Thousand Yard' Stare, common sign of Shell Shock Aid Station 1917
Australian Soldier with the 'Thousand Yard' Stare, common sign of Shell Shock Aid Station 1917

'Shell Shock'

During the course of the First World War, one of the conflicts most notorious effects was not on the physical, but mental welfare of soldiers.

The term ‘Shellshock’ has become synonymous with the four years of muddy slaughter which claimed over 9 million lives.

Shellshock, or battle fatigue, is a military term used to identify a range of behaviours that have resulted from the stress and horrors of battle.  There are a wide variety of symptoms which include fatigue, disconnection and the inability to function.

At the beginning of the war, the British Army was instructed in the following:

Shell-shock and shell concussion cases should have the letter 'W' prefixed to the report of the casualty, if it were due to the enemy; in that case the patient would be entitled to rank as 'wounded' and to wear on his arm a ‘Wound stripe'. If, however, the man’s breakdown did not follow a shell explosion, it was not thought to be ‘due to the enemy’, and he was to [be] labelled 'Shell-shock' or 'S' (for sickness) and was not entitled to a wound stripe or a pension.

As the war progressed and became bloodier, in 1916, Charles Myers became the chief Consulting Psychologist to the British Army.  Myers believed that, for the welfare of serving men, special centres were needed near the front line.  He also believed that treatment should be based upon the promptness of action, a suitable environment and therapeutic measures.  Myers also used hypnosis as a form of medicine to deal with shell shock.

In December 1916, Gordon Holmes was placed in charge of the Northern Sector of the Western Front.  Holmes indoctrinated tough militaristic attitudes which prevailed in the Army High Commands. By mid-1917, all British ‘Shell-Shock’ cases were transferred to neurological centres, and labelled ‘NYDN’ which stood for ‘Not yet Diagnosed Nervous’. Despite this, due to the British High Commands’ distrust of doctors, no patient could receive treatment until form AF 3436 was filled out by his units’ commanding officer. Undoubtedly this not only caused major delays, but showed that 4-10% of cases were due to physical causes and the rest were emotional.  This belief ultimately killed ‘Shell-Shock’ as a valid disease, despite doctors’ beliefs, and the condition was abolished in September 1918.

Corporal Henry Gregory, who served in the 119th Machine Gun Company, wrote:

“It was while I was in this Field Hospital that I saw the first case of shell-shock. The enemy opened fire about dinner time, as usual, with his big guns. As soon as the first shell came over, the shell-shock case nearly went mad. He screamed and raved, and it took eight men to hold him down on the stretcher. With every shell he would go into a fit of screaming and fight to get away….”

“It is heart-breaking to watch a shell-shock case. The terror is indescribable. The flesh on their faces shakes in fear, and their teeth continually chatter. Shell-shock was brought about in many ways; loss of sleep, continually being under heavy shell fire, the torment of the lice, irregular meals, nerves always on end, and the thought always in the man's mind that the next minute was going to be his last.”

The British High Commands beliefs during the Great War are now viewed as degrading and negative toward the allied war effort at the time.  The generals’ belief was that any serviceman who was suffering from ‘Shell-Shock’ was a coward.  In many high command circles, ‘shell-shock’ and cowardice were seen as the same thing.  In comparison to the French, Belgian and German armies, the British military lagged behind in understanding combat trauma.

The most notable treatment of ‘Shell-Shock’ was the Victorian hospital of Craiglockhart in Scotland.  The hospital was requisitioned by the military in 1916 and was turned into a war hospital for the treatment of shell shocked officers.  Both Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon received treatment at the hospital between 1917 and 1918.

During the course of the war, 306 British soldiers were executed for cowardice, many of them suffering from ‘Shell-Shock’.  Thankfully and honourably, in 2007, the British Government gave all the 306 executed servicemen posthumous pardons.

Although the trumpets faded and the guns fell silent in 1918, those who had served during four years of hell were still traumatised by what they had seen and done.  Men such as Otto Dix, George Grosz and Siegfried Sassoon wrote and painted their nightmares which still affected them.

Siegfried Sassoon died in 1967 still a soldier in his mind, whose war experiences gave him little peace.  Otto Dix, who was deeply affected by his war service, later described recurring appalling nightmares.  He subsequently represented his traumatic experiences in many works, including a portfolio titled “Der Krieg” published in 1924.  George Grosz, another ‘Shell-Shocked’ veteran of the war painted the images most people associate with Weimar Germany.  Industrialist businessmen, wounded soldiers, prostitutes and the debauchery of early Weimar Germany were his subjects.  Grosz’s deliberate crude caricature imagery is what he is best known for.

Grosz noted: 

"My Drawings expressed my despair, hate and disillusionment; I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon. . . . I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands. . . . I drew lonely little men fleeing madly through empty streets. I drew a cross-section of tenement house: through one window could be seen a man attacking his wife; through another, two people making love; from a third hung a suicide with body covered by swarming flies. I drew soldiers without noses; war cripples with crustacean-like steel arms; two medical soldiers putting a violent infantryman into a strait-jacket made of a horse blanket. . . I drew a skeleton dressed as a recruit being examined for military duty. I also wrote poetry.”

Hi, I'm Simon, a History graduate. I have had a passion for history since I was a child. One of my most passionate interests is "World One War". I have created an online magazine to this end. It covers all aspects of the bloodiest conflict known to man. The characters, the campaigns, the weapons, re-enactment groups and much, much more.

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