For the next few weeks on the blog, I’m going to host guests posting on historical topics, books, and people as I devote my time to the Historical Novel Society Conference June 19-26, and some writing.
Today, please welcome Eva Seyler. Eva’s post concerns PTSD, and her upcoming book The War in Our Hearts concerning World War 1.
Eva was born in Jacksonville, Florida. She left that humidity pit at the age of three and spent the next twenty-one years in California, Idaho, Kentucky, and Washington before ending up in Oregon, where she now lives on a homestead in the western foothills with her husband and five children, two of whom are human.
Shell Shock and the Great War
You’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You’d never think there was a bloody war on! …
O yes, you would … why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud, – quite soft … they never cease –
Those whispering guns – O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop – I’m going crazy;
I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.
– Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Repression of War Experience’ (1918)
In my forthcoming book, The War in Our Hearts, set during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the main character Captain Jamie Graham goes through a prolonged descent into shell shock.
At first his wife chalks it up to his sensitive nature, and the sense of loyalty to his comrades that disturbs the peace of his brief leave to see her. Unable to relax or quell his anxiety, he instead is overcome by a sense of guilt and loss (an experience Erich Maria Remarque describes well in All Quiet on the Western Front: how do you return to civilian life after the barbaric experience of trench warfare?)
As the story progresses, however, Jamie becomes increasingly unhinged, heavily dependent on his orderly to help him make decisions, and ultimately endangers the lives of those under his command and care before completely going over the edge. His recovery will take years.
What exactly is “shell shock”, though? Why was it such a huge problem in WWI?
One thing we have to remember is that, before the advent of the machine gun and other such deadly innovations, the pace of a battlefield in times of war was comparatively tame to what became standard in the twentieth century.
Although PTSD certainly existed before 1914, WWI was the first conflict in which soldiers could expect to be consistently bombarded and shot at for hours or days at a time with few pauses, with some battles dragging on for months, over the course of what Andy Simpson called a “four year siege”.
The result was a widespread and extremely puzzling phenomenon that the men at the front called “shell shock”. Dr Charles S Myers used the term when he wrote an article for The Lancet, a British medical journal, in early 1915, and it became the accepted name for the condition.
Shell-shocked men manifested a variety of symptoms. Some panicked; others behaved unpredictably, lost their memory or ability to reason, struggled to sleep, to talk, sometimes even to walk, or experienced a combination of these and other symptoms. It was a terrifying thing to witness, especially when and if they returned to their loved ones at home. It could be particularly dangerous at the front, where one erratic soldier could inadvertently put his comrades in danger, either by the contagion of fear, or by making irrational decisions.
Many believed that “shell shock” was simply the result of the shaking of the brain caused by shelling. Many chalked it up to cowardice and were convinced that it could be “cured” by proper military discipline. Some men were even tried and executed simply for having shell shock; it was thought that making examples of them would encourage other soldiers to stand strong in their duty as soldiers. The men generally did form a strong fear of fear, going out of their way to prove themselves in front of their comrades.
Dr Charles S Myers didn’t agree with this approach. Although there were many physical symptoms such as tremors or fatigue, his observations of cases led him to believe the root of the problem was a deeper, psychological one. This was backed up by the fact that many shell-shock cases were men who had not actually been at the front line where the shelling was happening. Myers advocated for “promptness of action, suitable environment and psychotherapeutic measures,” and by December 1916 he had several units set up to treat shell-shocked soldiers in France. The ongoing criticism of his methods (largely fueled by the attitude of a military that didn’t have funds or patience for properly treating shell-shocked men), eventually drove him out of favour, but despite disillusionment, he maintained his belief that prompt treatment was key and that the military’s red tape was responsible for the lack of quick, effective help available to soldiers who desperately needed it.
With no visible physical injury, these men were often sent right back to the front, without sufficient time to rest and recuperate quietly in a safe place behind the lines. It’s no wonder that a widespread mental health disaster was the result: for example, roughly 40% of the casualties from the Battle of the Somme were shell-shocked.
So many officers and men dealt with shell shock that, at one point, there were nineteen British hospitals exclusively dedicated to treating these patients. Ten years after the war’s end, over 60,000 were still receiving treatment, and even into the 1960s, some hospitals still had resident victims of shell shock from the Great War, who had never been able to go back to ordinary life.
This war was so different from anything that had come before it, it’s unsurprising that men began to break in such great numbers. But thanks to the work of Dr Myers, and others who carried on studying the effects of warfare on the mind after him, research continues to find new ways to help people with PTSD in our own day.
If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend these insightful articles:
The Shock of War (Smithsonian Magazine)