Great War Wednesday: Shellshock

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“Simply put, after even the most obedient soldier had enough shells rain down on him, without any means of fighting back, he often lost all self control.” Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars

In every conflict, some men seem to hold up to the stress of combat better than others. In World War I, however, the increased combat demands on individuals managed to break the resolve of even the most resolute soldier. At some point in the ceaseless rain of steel and sulfur, each man would eventually reach a point where he absolutely could not go on. Some men broke and ran while others fell down into a fetal position and still others could only stand rooted to one spot gibbering like mad men. This phenomenon, first noted in the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, is what became known as “shell shock” and it is one of the iconic mementos and most lasting sorrows of the Great War.

The origins of shellshock lie in the type of combat men faced in the First World War. For most of recorded history, men had gone out to a battlefield, engaged in wholesale slaughter of one another, then retired to a base camp around dark if the day proved inconclusive or ran like scalded dogs from the pursuing cavalry of their enemy. In other words, battles were generally short, local affairs. To give some perspective, in the American War of Northern Aggression, the Battle of Gettysburg — the largest battle of the war — lasted for three whole days and it was considered near the end of human endurance. By contrast, the Battle of the Somme in 1916 lasted three MONTHS. The Battle of Verdun lasted ten months. These campaigns were not rightfully called “sieges” either. These were months of sustained contact with the enemy and, even worse, days upon days of unending bombardment by artillery which dwarfed anything used in combat before or since.

Not to make the ancient and medieval battles less important, but a man at Cannae or Agincourt could think to himself, “If I can just survive today, I’ve got a decent chance to get home.” This was far from the case in World War I. Every day a man lived with death flying through the air towards him in the form of shells or waited for him “over the top” in the wasteland of No Man’s Land. To be at the front was to be under constant stress from fear of death and eventually, officers noticed their men began to come unhinged.

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The “Thousand Yard Stare” of a man who has seen more than men are meant to see.

One of the saddest commentaries of the entire First World War is that for much of the first months of the war, shell shock was not recognized as a true malady. Men who cowered in the trenches in tears and shaking were not considered unwell, they were considered cowards and malingerers shirking their duty to their country. Men who could not make themselves go over the top were charged with desertion or leaving one’s post under fire in addition to the accusations of cowardice. The result was the same regardless — a court martial. If the board found the defendant guilty, the punishment for cowardice, desertion, or dereliction of duty was the same — execution by firing squad. In all 306 British Empire soldiers — all but 15 enlisted men — were executed during World War I. Records show the majority of them were shot for desertion or cowardice. Being deserted by one’s faculties was not considered a reason not to fight, never mind that the hapless soldier often could not control his bladder, much less his limbs to shoot or march.

Gradually, thankfully, medical professionals began to take notice of what was happening. Doctors at front line casualty clearing stations started seeing definite patterns among the men they were treating. Early on, they thought what came to be called “shell shock” was a result of unseen brain damage caused by the concussion of high explosive shells near the victims. Then, the began to realize many men were showing similar symptoms even though they had not been in the vicinity of an explosion. That was the moment the medical corps realized it was dealing with a malady of the mind rather than the will and began treating men instead of shooting them.

Unfortunately, psychiatry was in its infancy as a medical practice in the early 20th Century so doctors weren’t sure how to help these hapless men. The one thing that seemed to work best was rest. Eventually, a man who began showing symptoms of shellshock was removed from the front to a safer rear area. Sometimes, this would be enough and a week or two with clean sheets, hot food, and no lice a reasonably safe distance from the bursting of the bombardments would restore a man and he could return to the fight. Once this became documented, the allies started the practice of rotating bodies of troops between the front and rear areas rather than demanding one unit stay on the fighting line for the duration of the campaign. This practice helped a great deal and new shell shock cases declined.

For some men, however, no amount of rest and recuperation would restore their shattered minds. Some of these poor souls could not stand unaided. Many shook uncontrollably at all times. For them, if they were lucky enough to survive until seen by a doctor, the war was over. They would be invalided back to the Home Islands, but for many, the damage was permanent. Some would spend the remainder of their lives in asylums or “neurological” hospitals with symptoms which never abated.

Even those who managed to avoid any outward symptoms of shellshock were seldom as unscathed as they appeared.

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For many, coming home didn’t end the Great War. Look closely under the bed.

War correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote in his 1922 account of the war Now It Can Be Told of the mass of men returning from the war:

Something was wrong. They put on civilian clothes again and looked to their mothers and wives very much like the young men who had gone to business in the peaceful days before August 1914. But they had not come back the same men. Something had altered in them. They were subject to sudden moods, and queer tempers, fits of profound depression alternating with a restless desire for pleasure. Many were easily moved to passion where they lost control of themselves, many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening.

At the time, people didn’t realize what was happening to these men, but their conditions demanded research.  These men, hale and whole in body yet shattered in mind and emotion paved the way for our understanding the soldiers of our later wars so that we no longer speak of “shell shock” but instead talk about Acute Combat Fatigue among our troops and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Combat Related once they transition to civilian life. It’s still not an easy fight as my daddy, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD could tell you if he could talk about it, but at least we no longer shoot our men as cowards just because their wills desert them.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean.

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2 responses »

  1. My great grandfather fought in World War 1. I had a number of conversations with my grandmother about him as her memories of her father were exactly as you described. When he returned home from the war, he suffered from shell shock, thus disengaging from his family in so many ways. She recalls her mother asking them as children, to just let him be. It breaks my heart to think of how much these men & their families suffered, knowing that these things were not talked about.

    Thank you for sharing this post:)

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