The term ‘shell shock’ was first used by military doctors in early 1915 to describe the physical ailments of a nervous breakdown. Initially, it was thought the cause was concussion of the brain by shock waves from a shell landing nearby. Before long, it came to sum up a broad range of symptoms, ranging from stuttering incoherently to being struck completely dumb (mutism); from being temporarily blinded to the loss of memory; from being unable to stand or walk to bad cases of ‘the shakes’.

Doctors were puzzled about the causes of the problem. Some were sympathetic, and thought ‘shell shock’ was a response to the severe strain of being trapped in trenches under fire, unable to adopt the normal human response of trying to get away from severe danger. Others were more hostile, seeing ‘shell shock’ as a sign of weakness and a form of hysteria, which was often thought of as a women’s disease – the word is derived from the Greek term for ‘womb’.

British wounded at Bernafay Wood, during the Battle of the Somme.

Moreover, as it was thought that hysteria could spread and infect a whole troop, the Army became increasingly concerned. Many senior officers thought men were trying it on, seeing ‘shell shock’ as a way to be sent home. The situation got particularly serious during the Battle of the Somme, when levels of shell shock dramatically increased. Commanders feared that if it got out of hand, the Army would lose its will to fight.

A series of measures were applied to discourage medical officers from diagnosing men with shell shock, and to punish men who showed signs of ‘cowardice’. By 1917, the number of cases had dropped, though this might simply have been a reflection of the way the Army now classified the disease.

Large numbers of men in both the French and German armies also suffered from shell shock, and these armies developed strategies to prevent the spread of the illness that also look inhumane to us today. Electric-shock therapy was used extensively, and many German soldiers were killed while being ‘treated’.

The widespread medical debate about the causes of shell shock prompted much interest in the press, and in the main the public were sympathetic, seeing it as another form of war wound, like losing an arm or leg, or any other physical injury.


This is an extract from issue 50 of Military History Monthly.