The Shell Shocks from Wars - History Key

The Shell Shocks from Wars

Many nasty things happen in war, or we could say that nothing good happens in war. Among the well-known horrors and tragedies related to the battlefields, there are several secondary issues coming directly from the everyday battle situations.

During modern warfare, the term of posttraumatic stress disorder is somehow familiar to us. We have heard about it after the Gulf War when many veterans accused the symptoms and have raised the issue with public attention, but the problem (and its variations) has older roots.

Today we will unlock for you the Shell Shock which is another form of war mutilation, for both the body and the soul. The term was adopted for the first time during WW1, and it is also known as “bullet wind”. Keep in mind that the term was used before the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Image from The Great War taken in an Australian Advanced Dressing Station near Ypres in 1917. The wounded soldier in the lower left of the photo has a dazed, thousand-yard stare - a frequent symptom of "shell-shock"
Image from The Great War taken in an Australian Advanced Dressing Station near Ypres in 1917. The wounded soldier in the lower left of the photo has a dazed, thousand-yard stare – a frequent symptom of “shell-shock” ©

Afraid to shoot strangers

During the war, the “shell shock” had an ambiguous definition, being related to both physical and psychological nature, and considered a form of illness. Some considered it more likely a lack of mental strength, but regardless to that, the shell shock issue was totally pulling out a soldier from his service.

In the very first part of WW1, the British soldiers started to report some mixed medical symptoms after a battle, including dizziness, amnesia, headaches and most important severe tremors. At the beginning, the medical staff present on the battlefield noticed that some of the symptoms were similar to the ones present in the case of head wounds, but the soldier examined didn’t have any head wound.

During December 1914, 10% of the British officers and 4% of the enlisted troops were suffering from this new form of “mental and nervous shock”. The shell shock term was used for the first time in 1915, in an article published in The Lancet by Charles Myers. The related symptoms were defined more clearly: acute neurasthenia, mutism, fugue, and tremors.

Shell shocked soldier, WW1
Shell-shocked soldier, WW1 © Pinterest

The main trigger of the phenomenon was related to a very traumatic experience, usually connected to artillery shelling or gruesome close combat experiences.

Here the words of Arthur Hubbard from 7 July 1916, describing how he ended in a hospital suffering from shell shock:

“We had strict orders not to take prisoners, no matter if wounded my first job was when I had finished cutting some of their wire away, to empty my magazine on 3 Germans that came out of one of their deep dugouts, bleeding badly, and put them out of misery. They cried for mercy, but I had my orders, they had no feeling whatever for us poor chaps… it makes my head jump to think about it.”

The “over the fence” experience (meaning a direct assault on the enemy positions) was a tough job, and very often one of the causes of the shell shock illness. The soldiers who had experienced close combat situations, especially bayonet charges or killings, developed all sorts of nervous facial tics, involuntary muscle contractions of their face.

The ones who knifed an enemy in the stomach, developed terrible pain and cramps in the abdomen area. Terrible nightmares were also common, but the difference was that they occurred during the day and while awake, in the middle of a conversation, the face of a bayoneted enemy could appear in a vivid form in the mind of the one who killed him.

Eyes of madness: shell-shocked soldier in trench, 1916
Eyes of madness: shell-shocked soldier in trench, 1916 © Rare Historical Photos


There were many difficulties to understand the exact cause of the shell shock. For a considerable amount of time, it was believed that the illness was directly related to a physical injury of the nervous system. Many believed that the shell shock was caused by the explosion of heavy bombardment, but the idea was reconsidered when many cases were related to soldiers who never been in battle or near the front lines.

Inabilities to sleep or eat, anxiety or uncontrollable diarrhea, were among the symptoms related to the shell shock phenomenon.

War is hell, and that’s a fact, but it is also “an official abrogation of civilized standards”, as the Ernest Jones, president of the British Psycho-Analytic Association, stated. Jones continued by affirming that the abrogation of civilized standards was not only allowed but also encouraged:

“…to indulge in behavior of a kind that is throughout abhorrent to the civilized mind. All sorts of previously forbidden and hidden impulses, cruel, sadistic, murderous and so on, are stirred to greater activity, and the old intrapsychic conflicts which, according to Freud, are the essential cause of all neurotic disorders, and which had been dealt with before by means of ‘repression’ of one side of the conflict are now reinforced, and the person is compelled to deal with them afresh under totally different circumstances.”

The situation was complicated by the strange need to differentiate the exact cause of the illness, even separating the source of the artillery fire that could have caused the shell shock. The following is an instruction from 1915, for the soldiers of the British Army stationed in France:

“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] labeled ‘Shell-shock’ or ‘S’ (for sickness) and was not entitled to a wound stripe or a pension.”

Shell-Shocked Soldier
Shell-Shocked Soldier, WW1 ©


At the beginning, the shell shock victims were evacuated from the battlefield, also considering their uncontrolled and unpredictable behavior. In short time, the shell shock cases became a serious problem, considering that during the 1916 Battle of the Somme around 40% of the casualties were shell shock related.

Among the shell shock victims, there were reported cases of fake illness that have been judged by the military court. In other situations, shell-shocked soldiers were put on trial and even executed for crimes, desertion or cowardice.

The phenomenon reached a very serious phase when 19 British military hospitals were totally dedicated to the treatment of such cases. Around 70,000 veterans, were still treated for shell shock ten years after the war.

Shell Shock patient
Shell Shock patient © HistoryExtra

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