“Shell shock” was the term used to describe initially inexplicable symptoms in soldiers in World War I. Although similar reactions to war have been recorded throughout history, World War I was the first industrialized war, i.e., instead of men carving arrow heads in their spare time, shells were produced on the assembly line in factories. This meant that hundreds of thousands of men had become incapable of fighting because of their symptoms. Below you’ll find a list of ten facts about “shell shock.” Sources are listed at the end.
1. The term “shell shock” first entered the English language in 1915. But, as I’ve already mentioned, the condition has been known for much, much longer.
2. At the start, general agreement in WWI was that shell shock was caused by the force of artillery. Psychological causes were accepted later, to some degree.
3. The number of men affected was astounding. An estimated 80,000 British soldiers were said to have suffered from it. In Germany, over 100,000 men were treated in field hospitals for “hysteria.”
4. Treatment varied. For example, France believed it important to treat these soldiers at the front, whereas Germany preferred to put the men to work on farms or in factories, with “nerve doctors” working nearby.
5. However, there were no drug treatments for shell shock at this time.
6. “Shell shock” became a catch-all phrase to describe symptoms that had no apparent physical cause. “PTSD,” or “post-traumatic stress disorder” refers to psychiatric symptoms only.
7. Certainly nothing new, but something that bears repeating: men weren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings in this generation (or subsequent ones for that matter). This of course would’ve made it that much harder for them to live with their shell shock.
8. Electroshock therapy became a common treatment. The more I read about it, the more I began to wonder if it was better for these men to live with their nightmares and symptoms or to be repeatedly electrocuted.
9. Part of the fear of shell shock was its supposed “femininity.” In other words, many believed that men who suffered from this malady weren’t manly enough to handle war. (This of course extended to their sexuality.)
10. Estimates for Canadian veterans of today suggest that up to 10% of war-zone Veterans—including those on peacekeeping missions—live with PTSD as a chronic condition.
Remembrance Day is just around the corner. Remember not only those who’ve fallen and the great void left in their wake, but also those who have witnessed and survived war: for many survivors, the war is never over.
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