Shell Shock: The Nations Problem An analysis of shell shock through the perspectives of British Medical and British Military personnel and analysing how modern day contemporaries understand the phenomenon

“Shell shock”, the term echoes the horrors of the Great War, a term that held and holds many different meanings for many different people. I would like to explore how shell shock acted as a term of mediation [1], the term acted as a barrier between soldiers who had endured the horrors of war and doctors behind the line it was a term that was belittled by generals and feared by soldiers and finally “shell shock” became a key term in representing the Great War in contemporary times when figures of human casualties become to immense to conceive.

What did “Shell Shock” mean for the medical academics?

The term ‘shell shock’ began as a means of identifying the cases that arose from exploding ordinance first identified in the publication of a paper on mental illness in the lancet by Capt. C.S. Myers in 1915 (who associated the cause to brain lesions initially). Shell shock in its early stages became a matter of opinion and intense debate, many neurologist thought it to be a physical problem caused by exploding shells; others like Myers began to identify shell shock as an emotional trauma rather than a physical problem.  The emotional explanation was accepted by the British military because it was easier to get men back on the battlefield if it was a psychological problem rather than a physical one. This explanation was attractive to the British military because during the initial stages of the war they were low on front line troops. This diagnosis was an attempt to deal with a new set of medical problems and was a way in which it could help the nation return men to the war.

Soldiers and Reenactment

For soldiers shell shock was a term that inherited a variety of meanings. For some shell shock was an embarrassment, a stigma that they would never be able to rid themselves of, for others shell shock would become a curse for reliving the horrors of war over and over again. Accounts of vivid reenactment are found in many soldier memoirs, diaries and poems, it’s as if the experiences are not remembered by shell shock victims but relived. Owen for instance does not does not merely remember a comrade’s failure to get his gas mask on in time he relives it “In all my dreams before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, gulping, and choking”[1] Re-enactment seems to be a partnering condition with war neurosis and in this sense shell shock serves as a means in which soldiers relive their experiences, and becomes a means of rationalizing what they had experienced.


‘Ignorant’ Generals

In regards to Commanding officers during the First World War the term was met with scepticism and belittlement. This was a result of complete ignorance to the medical backing for shell shock, and so instead, saw it as cowardice and a backlash to Edwardian values. Showalter stated that military commanders and generals did not believe in the legitimacy of an emotional and psychological medical condition directly resulting from warfare, despite the evidence given by medical officers. This trend is reflected by Gibbs a British journalist who was assigned to the western front he wrote:

 “The shell-shock cases were the worst to see and the worst to cure. At first shell-shock was regarded as damn nonsense and sheer cowardice by Generals who had not themselves witnessed its effects. They had not seen, as I did, strongly, sturdy, men shaking with ague, mouthing like madman, figures of dreadful terror, speechless and uncontrollable. It was a physical as well as a moral shock which had reduced them to this quivering state”[2].

Contemporary Understandings

Shell shock defined the Great War and continued to serve through that prism; from here I’d like to examine shell shock from a contemporary view. The meaning of Shell shock took on a notation that was removed from the medical field and became more associated with a metaphorical importance. I want to propose that shell shock evolved from being a term that helped medical professionals diagnose mental symptoms, soldiers relive their experiences or Generals combating disciplinary issues and became a term that helped people conjure up the long term affects of the war. The British nation knew that the war was costly, devastating and had even been blamed with losing a generation, but was there a correct language in which to express this? Winters argues that in Britain a political discourse was unavailable for the expression of the soldiers’ point of view about the damage the war had caused and that the term ‘shell-shock’ denoted a violent physical injury, albeit of a special kind[3].In this sense the term acts as a way in which soldiers can explain the terrors they faced to the people who never experience military duty during the Great War. The term shell shock removes itself from the stigma of other psychological issues like insanity and instead echoes the horrors these men faced during the devastating war. Captivatingly Winters brings up a constructive point stating that to understand the significance of shell-shock within the British vocabulary of the war is to see it as the language of the officer corps, the ‘Lost Generation’ whose casualty rates were well above those of the men they led. ‘Shell-shock’ is therefore a code to describe the shock of the war to the ruling elite, whose sons and apprentices, being groomed for power, were slaughtered in France[4]. On that note shell shock could be assumed as a way of understanding how so many young men lost their youth or optimism in nationalism

[1] Wilfred Owen, The poems of Wilfred Owen London 1947 pp 87

[2] Gibbs,P. Now it can be Told 1920 extracted from

[3] Winter, J. Shell-shock and the Cultural History of the Great War 2000 Vol. 35, No. 1 pp9

[4] Winter, J. Shell-shock and the Cultural History of the Great War 2000 Vol. 35, No. 1 pp10

3 comments on “Shell Shock: The Nations Problem An analysis of shell shock through the perspectives of British Medical and British Military personnel and analysing how modern day contemporaries understand the phenomenon

  1. kastley41469526 says:

    I really enjoyed your blog, particularly since I have a strong family history involving WWI and shell shock. Your blog was insightful and covered a variety of issues. The use of different perspectives to view shell shock, such as medical analysis that focused on neurology was great as it showed a a development of how shell shock was viewed. Your point about language was also very informative. Language and how it is associated with shell shock reveals how society felt about shell shock and is a great to indicate a change in attitude such as the fact the current language is empathetic is separate from the traditional negative stigma that linked shell shock to insanity.

  2. alfredjohnson1707 says:

    Hi Luke,
    Great work on the linguistic construction of shell shock, particularly how you pointed out that the stigma of the term comes from middle class voices such as Wilfred Owen. I would like to put in a word for the generals. Part of the reason they had to take such a supposedly hardline stance towards shell shock was they could not easily tell whether someone was playacting or genuinely affected. If they took a lax stance on any reported sufferer a lot of cowards and malingerers would have found an easy way out of the conflict, which would destroy military discipline and reduce the BEF’s fighting capacity. That said, they were not unsympathetic as Philip Gibbs and the popular memory would have you believe. Gibbs’ frustration at his war reports being censored resulted in his hostility towards the generals after the war. The British army actually recognised shell shock as a genuine war injury and took measure to reduce its impact. The British (unlike the Germans) frequently rotated their battalions in and out of the front lines. Soldiers spent most of their time in the quieter sectors or behind the lines, giving most of them ample time to recover from the mental trauma of combat. Genuine shell shock victims could receive treatment without stigma. For a fuller treatment on the military attitude to shell shock, Gordon Corrigan’s “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” may interest you.
    Any thoughts?

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