Regeneration Shell-Shock

The Great War, as World War I was known, began on July 28, 1914 and ended four years later on November 11, 1918. During this shattering, modern conflict, nations employed evolving technologies - like armoured vehicles, tanks, machine guns, and poisonous gas - on a massive scale for the first time, resulting in an unprecedented number of casualties and injuries amongst both soldiers and civilians. The bloody war consumed the lives of 9 million combatants and 7 million non-combatants before finally ending with Armistice of Compiègne. Yet the damage wrought by the war extended far beyond lives lost: many soldiers returned from the front permanently traumatized by the horrors they had witnessed. 

In 1915, Captain Charles Myers of the Royal Army Medical Corps coined a new phrase for the increasingly common nervous disorder affecting soldiers: shell-shock (Alexander). Doctors initially believed that this condition was the result of explosions slamming soldiers' brains into their skulls with concussive force. However, it eventually became clear that shell-shock was a psychological disorder, as some of the afflicted had never been exposed to the shelling originally pinpointed as the condition's physical cause. Regardless of its origin, a distressing number of soldiers were experiencing shell-shock during and after World War I. There were an estimated 80,000 cases in Britain alone; one out of every seven men discharged for disabilities from the British Army was diagnosed with shell-shock (Bourke). At Craiglockhart, the hospital where the real-life Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were patients, 1736 patients suffering from the disorder were treated; 758 of them returned to duty (Webb). Interestingly, officers were over-represented amongst victims of shell-shock; one out of 31 men on the front was an officer, yet 1 out of 7 patients in military hospitals specializing in shell-shock was an officer.

As the field of psychology developed and doctors started classifying shell-shock as a mental disorder, it was renamed "neurasthenia." By 1917, army personnel were instructed to document patients with shell-shock as “Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous),” indicating the degree of confusion and disagreement that marked the condition (Alexander). Psychologists, meanwhile, employed a battery of cures ranging from psychotherapy to electroshock treatments to “electric heat baths, milk diets, hypnotism, clamps, and machines that mechanically forced stubborn limbs out of their frozen position” (Alexander). However, the difficulty of separating cases of brain damage from nervous disorders continues to this day. A recent study conducted by the Rand Institute estimated that 19% of US soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from concussive brain damage due to explosions (Alexander), and many of these soldiers are misdiagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the modern incarnation of psychological shell-shock. War may have changed since the early 1900s, but society’s struggle to effectively treat those damaged by it has not.