World War One was the first war that fully made use of the developments and creations of the Industrial Age. Trench warfare, mass artillery barrages, and hopeless charges against fortified positions all contributed to a catastrophic death toll. When many soldiers in the war began demonstrating symptoms of panic, problems sleeping, and trouble talking or even walking, people were quick to put the blame on these newly developed and terrifying instruments of war. Charles Myers, an English physician who coined the term ‘shell shock’, hypothesized that these problems were due to the physical trauma of exploding shells and their blast waves.
As more people began showing symptoms, including those who had never been close to a shell or even heard one, theories began to shift and both a physical and psychological form of shell shock were adopted by physicians. In the days before PTSD was a diagnosis, or much was known about the psychological effects of combat, cases of shell shock were viewed with scorn by many. In 1922 the English War Office Committee released the findings of its inquiry into shell shock, noting that “fear is the chief factor in both cowardice and emotional ‘shell shock’.” Treatments for shell shock at the time varied and ranged from the bizarre to the downright brutal. Treatments like introducing parrots into hospital wards, painting the rooms bright colors, and organizing singing lessons were mixed in with severe electroshock therapy.
June is PTSD Awareness month, and although psychological trauma would not receive that diagnosis for many decades, and not a few wars to come, it is important to recognize that World War One and shell shock helped bring this issue to people’s attention. The biggest improvement has been recognizing that this trauma is not the result of cowardice or character flaws from those suffering from it. High suicide rates of World War One veterans in the United States attest to the damage that this belief caused. The shell shock of the first World War would morph into War Neurosis, then Battle Fatigue, Combat Stress Reaction, and eventually Post-Vietnam Syndrome. Finally, in 1980 the American Psychological Association added PTSD to its manual of “Mental Disorders.”
Written by Christopher Russell
Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into “Shell-Shock.” Army Medical Services Museum, Keogh Barracks. License: CC-BY-NC accessed through Wellcome Library
Bluhm, Robyn and Brandt, Marisa, and McDonald, MaryCatherine. From shell-shock to PTSD, a century of invisible war trauma. PBS NewsHour, Nov 11, 2018.
Friedman, Matthew J. MD PhD. History of PTSD in Veterans: Civil War to DSM-5. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Alexander, Caroline. The Shock of War. Smithsonian Magazine, September 2010.
Newspaper articles from the Cordova Daily Times, and the Alaska Daily Empire.