Perspectives on ‘shell shock’

One of the most vivid resources which the WW1C project has found is this series of videos from the Wellcome Collection depicting shell-shocked soldiers under treatment (also available on YouTube here).

Still from the film War Neuroses: Netley Hospital' Wellcome Collection (CC BY-NC-SA)

Still from ‘War Neuroses: Netley Hospital (1917), pt. 1 of 5’ Wellcome Collection (CC BY-NC-SA)

These haunting films portray the profound psychological effects of trench warfare in a conflict in which 56% of troops would end up killed or wounded (compared to a 4.5% military fatality rate in the Second World War). The films depict individual cases of shell-shocked “other ranker” soldiers demonstrating their symptoms; occasionally the films cut to a shot of the soldier much improved after a course of treatment. The first video begins with Private Meek, a 23-year-old with “complete retrograde amnesia, hysterical paralysis, contractures, mutism and universal anaesthesia”, but who makes a complete recovery after a sudden return of memory.  For all that Meek’s first state is truly debilitated, I find the footage of Private Preston which soon follows even more haunting:  the intertitles tell us that he “has amnesia, word blindness and word deafness, except to the word ‘bombs'”, and the silent film demonstrates what happens when the doctor says that word — Preston dives under a bed.  There is no film of Preston’s recovery, if there ever was one.

Preston, Meek and their cohort had more to deal with than their psychological troubles. British contemporaries, including senior Army officers, were unsure to what extent shell shock constituted a “real” injury, and a suspicion pervaded that a breakdown without obvious cause signalled cowardice or a lack of manliness.  A 1915 British Army order demonstrates this uncertainty well:

Shell-shock and shell concussion cases should have the letter “W” prefixed to the report of the casualty, if it was 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.

In other words, psychological trauma was not, in itself, an injury, but entirely dependent on the circumstances which brought it about: the scenario alone determined whether a soldier was deemed brave and worthy of a pension, or the reverse.

Further reading:

Professor Simon Wessely is Chair and Head of the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. He has made the following papers to us available under a CC-BY-NC-SA licence.

Wikipedia: Combat stress reaction (World War One)

In this MindHacks post on the Wellcome films, Matt Webb explains some of the differences between “shell shock” and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Cite : Perspectives on 'shell shock' ( by Fionnuala Barrett ( licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales (

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About Fionnuala Barrett

I am a master's student of nineteenth-century English literature at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. For the WW1C project I have been overseeing the @Arras95 live-tweeting project, as well as researching resources to add to the project library.
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5 Responses to Perspectives on ‘shell shock’

  1. Pingback: War (what is it good for?)

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  3. Matt says:

    As a Historian and the Great Grands0n of someone who suffered from neurasthenia and two wound stripes, I think the WW1 Centenary Project is a great addition to the web.

    I do have one concern of the project falling into the traditional trappings of History, such as falling into national silos. There have been several great thesis and books made by Aussie and Canadian Historians and scholars. Canadian Terry Copp did some ground breaking work on PTSD in the early 1990s.

    From a personal family experience, the effects of neurasthenia/Shell shock never go away. He was treated in two hospitals in England before coming home. My Grandfather recovered from his wounds and learned to live with his loss of limb. He became a productive member of society, but he medicated his emotional wounds with Alcohol and extra-martial affairs. Even in his advanced age, he could not be in the kitchen when the kettle was whistling.

    • Kate Lindsay says:

      Thanks for your comments Matt. The blog is open to anyone in the world to contribute short scholarly articles. Look out for pieces coming in other languages including German and Russian.

  4. Daniel Underwood says:

    I would just like to say many thanks for this incredible resource! I am an A-level student currently undertaking an Extended Qualification Project on ‘shell shock’ and its causes. The articles provided such as this have been very insightful and the ‘further reading’ section as well as the ‘resource library’ have really enriched my research.

    Kind regards,

    Daniel Underwood

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