Shell Shock – The Psychological Scars of World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

Shell Shock – The Psychological Scars of World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special


You weren’t hit by any bullet or shrapnel.
You survived multiple battles, even charges into no-mans land and trench raids, and yet
you’re still a real casualty of war and suffer a variety of terrible physical and
mental problems, for you have shell shock. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
special episode on Shell Shock. In the First World War, it was as early as
the first battles, such as Mons, that military and medical authorities faced what would become
a familiar feature of the war – men with no physical injury showing real medical problems,
many of which would persist long after the war: headaches, cardiac irregularities, blindness,
amnesia, depression, anxiety, loss of appetite, nightmares, and many more. By 1915 the symptoms
had a name in English, shell shock, but while the name was new, it had been around for a
long time, and becoming unhinged during war is as old as war itself. It’s mentioned
in Gilgamesh and the writings of Herodotus and it goes under a variety of names throughout
history. In the Napoleonic Wars it was a “bullet wind” when soldiers would have reactions
to nearly being shot. In the American Civil War, “soldiers’ heart” was the name
given to persistent cardiac problems. In more recent times it would be called Battle fatigue,
Gulf War Syndrome, or today PTSD to a certain extent, although that refers only to psychiatric
symptoms and not the unexplained physical symptoms. What WAS new in WW1 was the scale
of it – as many as 80,000 British soldiers suffered, for example, and 100,000 Germans
were treated for “hysteria” in field hospitals. Shell Shock and its treatment would help shape
the relatively new fields of neurology and psychology and would challenge traditional
ideas about madness and normality. War syndrome and its possible treatments were
first studied systematically in the Russian wars with Turkey in 1877-88 and Japan in 1904-05.
In the second one, Russian doctors prescribed “forward treatment”, which meant close
to the frontline, the idea being to intervene before the condition became fixed and the
men could no longer fight. Doctors compared symptoms they saw to those of survivors of
man-made disasters, such as train wrecks, and the symptoms were often the same. There
was even a name for them, “railway spine”, and in the 1860s and 70s there was a series
of court cases in Britain and Germany about compensating victims of railway spine, and
the issues of cause and compensation would define the WW1 debate about shell shock. Now, everyone agreed that the symptoms were
real, but what were they caused by? Was it actual damage like micro-lesions on
the brain? Or was it purely emotional or psychological? And were sufferers pre-disposed to it, did
they have a weak character, or latent epilepsy? Well, whether physical or mental, it was generally
agreed that the external cause was the force of modern artillery. Belgian doctor Octave
Laurent believed that speeding projectiles caused variations in pressure that affected
the inner ear, and initially the physical cause idea prevailed in general. Part of this
was pure practicality – there was a great reluctance to accept the psychological root
since this would lead to an explosion in compensation claims – but slowly but surely psychological
explanations were accepted as well, or instead. But how do you treat something so nebulous? Well, you tried a variety of things. There
was disciplinary treatment, such as Faradism named after Michael Faraday, which was electric
shock treatment. There was analytical treatment, the idea that the patient was suffering from
internal conflict and a close relationship with a therapist could help. There were talking
cures based on re-experiencing repressed memories, but along with any kind of treatment there
were ethical questions and doubts. Shell shock was pretty easy to fake, and easy
enough to get off duty once you faked it, but how do you tell fakers? And what do you
do once someone is cured anyhow? Do you send him back to the frontline where the whole
thing could just get re-ignited? It was a big problem, and it was a big international
problem, and the medical world WAS international. Germany was the international leader in medicine,
for example, while the pioneer figure in neurology was the Frenchman Jean-Martin Charcot, but
though the questions and issues were the same all over, there were differences in treatment
and interpretation. In Germany, it was Kriegshysterie, and the
Kriegszitterer were the trembling veterans who begged on street corners. Now, here’s
something to keep in mind; back in 1884 Bismarck had passed accident insurance legislation,
which compensated for medical and nervous effects of industrial accidents. Got it? Well,
what this led to 30 years later was the rejection of psychological causes of shell shock for
clearly stated economic reasons – it would cost the state too much money to compensate
people if it was psychological. In fact, some German psychologists saw it as their job to
protect the state from “a proliferation of mental invalids and war pension recipients,”
so Germany set up a system based on containment, preventing men who might be susceptible from
returning to the front and giving them work as their psychiatric treatment. These men
were treated just like industrial workers. The factories and shop floors were seen as
therapeutic environments and were near treatment centers. Entire villages for the nervously
ill were constructed so that, under the direction of nerve doctors, men could take all sorts
of jobs, and they were real paid jobs that had value, not just make-work. There was no
room for sympathy or pity; that was effeminate and pathogenic. There were, of course, more active and bizarre
treatments, Faradism, barking military orders at patients, the sudden singing of the national
anthem to shock men into regaining their hearing. It was different for the French. The French believed in treatment at the front,
and “intentionally obstructed the easy evacuation of such casualties.” Many French doctors
believed that shell shock was caused by suggestion, though they recognized that it was unconscious,
but they used often-brutal methods to bring it out so that they could then create the
will to overcome it. There was a famous legal case in May 1916 when a soldier was arrested
for assault when he hit his doctor who was trying to apply an electric shock. Apparently,
the shock he had already been given was strong enough to move a streetcar and he would rather
be court-martialed than repeat the experience. This led to the issue of whether injured soldiers
had the rights of private citizens or were under military command and thus could be forced
to be treated. Italians believed that going home triggered
it; that the stress of seeing how women and children struggled with the men away at war
sent men over the edge, and psychiatric intervention was geared toward unmasking malingerers. In Russia they were quite forward thinking,
and in 1916 doctors called for special hospitals and treatment centers, and then the Revolution
ended all that. In Britain the psychological explanation was
more readily accepted. Interestingly enough, officers were affected- percentage wise – more
often than enlisted men in the British army, and some of the numbers are staggering; during
the Battle of the Somme, in some areas as high as 40% of casualties were nervous disorders
and it apparently was “contagious” in some units. The army was worried, though,
that seeing it as psychological made “weakness” acceptable, though treatment changed when
it began to be seen as a medical problem and not a disciplinary one, and by mid 1918 there
was a whole network of British hospitals dedicated to shell shock. W.H.R. Rivers was a key figure
for treatment of shell shock in Britain. He emphasized patients helplessness and lack
of control, and saw an interior conflict between “…their emotion of honest fear and their
sense of duty as men,” and that “three assumptions about personal invulnerability
were shattered: the world as meaningful, as comprehensible, and seeing oneself in a positive
light.” Amazing how differently it was seen from country
to country. But Long term and post war, shell shock created
a new understanding that circumstances could cause mental breakdowns, which had nothing
to do with moral fiber, and that mental illness was something that could be transient and
wasn’t necessarily genetic or degenerate. This was the first step toward the idea of
psychological causes for mental symptoms being acceptable, made talking cures a part of regular
life, and took away some of the stigma of psychotherapy. Indeed, shell shock became
a metaphor for the war; a recurring nightmare, images that would not leave, transient madness
that struck the entire world. This topic could and should be an entire documentary
series in itself. Today was just touching the basic points of perception, cause, and
treatment during the First World War.

100 thoughts on “Shell Shock – The Psychological Scars of World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

  1. Men buried alive several times in a day by massed artillery and dug out by friends. Million round barrages living among rotting body parts and seeing thousands torn to shreds in a few hours. One Australian report describes a section shelled so often the soil became Ash and no longer had any resemblance to dirt.

  2. What is not conveyed by film is the Shock Waves that pass through your body with concussion and nausea that rolls on hour after hour.

  3. The British were famous for shooting people on the spot thaught to be malingering or refusing to go over the top. They executed untold numbers of Shell Shocked men believing it would cure cowardice and stiffen resolve. There are films of men shaking violently tied to Poles and executed for cowardice.

  4. Adolph Hitler was awarded the Iron Cross twice 1st and 2nd Class he was Gassed and suffered Hysterical Blindness he later recovered from.

  5. a mixture of PTSD(Shell shock) and Catatonic behaviour/or Catatonic Schizophrenia due to the extreme amounts of trauma

  6. My great grandfather had PTSD from ww1 and won s bravery award saving his colleague. He drank himself to death my grandfather told my father about him vomiting buckets of blood as it was killing him. Even to this day no help for our women and men. RIP

  7. I definitely think that Germany had an alright idea. A mix of talking about and keeping yourself busy through trauma could help.

  8. I lost 3 years to PTSD. I cant remember much. It took bi weekly therapies & doctors experimenting with every drug. Ten years later I can fake most people into thinking Im normal.

  9. My dad knew of a man who was normal prior to ww1 and after returning home, he would stand by his gate and fence and smoke cigarettes all day. He had that thousand yard stare. He was an old man of course by the time my dad was born but people who knew him prior to the war and after saw the change in him. Horrible

  10. Why do we not see these extreme conditions in modern warfare? Is it kept from us? We should always honor and support our veterans.

  11. Why do Europeans feel the need for great wars (don’t see what’s so great about it). Look what you do to your people.

  12. Why does every time time he talks about Russia he really seems reluctant to talk about the nice parts and keeps it very brief and tries to overweight with smth negative. A typical Russian-hating Brit indeed

  13. There where underlying chemical aspects of "Gulf War Syndrome" attributable to the large scale detonation of stockpiles of Sadams chemical weapons stockpiles. Big boom followed by toxic cloud inhaled by unwitting soldiers perhaps many miles away…

  14. I think varying degrees of this affliction stay with every single soldier who ever saw combat and it never goes away entirely. This was something I thought about in a reflection on being happy to have been born when I was born and where I was born. If I was alive and on the front, I can't say I wouldn't be a coward, I can't say I'd be able to kill. The most likely thing, I figure, is simply being killed in ordinary circumstances for the Western Front.

    I can't say the constant artillery wouldn't cause my nervous system to collapse. And this, on top of various other strains like watching friends die or witnessing any of the horrors of that war. I am certain it is the nervous system. Nerves under such incredible and enduring sensory inputs do not behave the same way they do in normal conditions, and the mind remembers these things.

  15. our minds are not as "tough" as conservative folks tend to believe in

    being exposed to war is no different than being exposed to personal violence

  16. those "shell shock" symptoms are treated best by first sending politicians to the trenches to lead the charges

  17. i think the term gulf war syndrome was more to do with the health effects of climbing all over tanks and trucks that were shot to pieces with depleted uranium rounds they were using. at least that is what iv been told.

  18. a friend of mine was a really happy and loud type of man but after his time in afghanistan, he is in the german Bundeswehr, he became quiet after terrorist mortar-fire killed two man and a woman of his unit…
    since then he talks only in short sentences and is quiet or wakes up in shock screaming for his mom

  19. having been diagnosed and treated for PTSD, I have come to the conclusion that many of the "heroic" acts that earned there reciepents a post humous medal are really the results of people trying to "shake" whatever malady they were feeling

    I personally was an EMT for 16 years and now with the benifit of hind sight, I can see how I was acting much more like an avenging angel than a flesh and blood person

    the shrinks at my treatment center explained it like this….

    imagine you have a cup, every experince you have puts a drop of liquid in the cup…sooner or later that cup is full and then over fills

    and no one knows how big there cup is to start with or what kind of liquid is fulling your cup

    if you have a shot glass sized up, it doesn't take as long to fill it and if your filling it with gasoline there is a pretty big chance it will be volitile

    the end result however (at least in my experince ) is that as the one with these physical symptoms….you have no idea whats going on and just want to be "normal" again

    so you keep pushing harder and harder

    you can see how this doesn't do anything other than put more drops in your cup however

  20. sorry but war cannot be stopped ever people are just evil-mean it's just their nature and we all know it

  21. My great grand father survived the war, but still had an early death due to circulatory issues from the mud in the trenches.

  22. I want to know why it would disturb their ability to move normally… I understand developing severe mental illness, panic attacks ect, but u don't understand why some lost control over their bodies as shown in this video.

  23. As a former soldier, and one that thought I'd never see the front lines first hand, this is a case of weak minded people. Nature has a way of dividing the weak and the strong. Civilization has an odd way of allowing this weakness to continue and in most cases exacerbate.

  24. Man , people back then were savages with their treatment of Mental Illness and Psychological afflictions .

    They were taking people seeing others , some maybe friends or by their own hand , shot , stabbed , blown and torn apart and they are trying to not spend a Dime on their recovery or well being and are just seeing their suffering as just an annoyance or actions of coocoos .Did they seriously take so long to see where it came from ? .

    The Aristocratic class is not Human , they can understand Human suffering .

  25. I think the scale of PTSD was higher than other wars is because the experience of it’s combat was uniquely psychologically traumatizing.

  26. I remember reading this book a long time ago, apparently it's a real biography of this Austro-Hungarian soldier, he talks about how his captain got his two or three only sons in the war with him. All the sons die, the captain acts like nothing has happened, the soldier writing the book remarks that he didn't think it was because the man didn't care about his sons, it was because he was a great leader who couldn't let morale drop. This should be obvious, but that's kinda when it really hit me, why officers may come out really fucked up.

  27. The brain damaged veterans coming back from Iraq caused by IEDs has shed new light on PTSD. Brain damage affects not only bodily function but it also affects how you think and act AKA psychological symptoms. We need to get away from the idea that thinking and minds are not aspects of brains. Psychological symptoms can't be just wished away as all in your head.

  28. sometimes when a man had sell shock he would wonder around in a daze not know who he was or where he was. the french would know they were English because of their uniforms so they would put them on the next boat to England to deal with them. I had an ancestor that happened to he went missing during the war 5 years later he was found walking around England not knowing who he was.

  29. The foto of the doctors sitting at the table the man to the left looked like John Malkovich playing poirot!

  30. With all do respect but if I saw that moder fking walking on a dark corridor at 3am I would run tf away
    The guy at 0:41

  31. PTSD was rare in the times before guns. Face to face combat is far less mentally damaging than getting shot at or shelled from a distance. That’s why spec-op guys have much lower instances of PTSD.

  32. Gulf War Syndrome was not a form of PTSD. GWS was a biological reaction to either chemical or biological weapons used in the Gulf War (blowing up Sarin/Mustard/VX Gas stockpiles found in Iraq) or a reaction to the environment/pollution (oilfields burning for months at a time/petroleum products in the soil and water, unknown blood parasite, etc) in the Persian Gulf area.

  33. Why wouldn’t men suffer after being thrown into the meat grinder and forced to fight wars that did not serve them but served the ruling class . John Lennon said it all. War is pornography!!!

  34. The minute they changed the label of shell shock to PTSD every civvy with a hangup claimed to have it

  35. Soldiers are the main victims in the business of War,
    and ironically, the producers of wealth
    for the Military Industrial Complex.

  36. Horrific! I understand that the French military shot those suffering from shell shock at the beginning of the conflict.

  37. Of COURSE when medicine was being progressive & advancing…COMMUNISM came along & threw them into the dark ages.

  38. I am currently writing a short story/novella about a group of German soldiers in the trenches, the main focus being the impact of war on their psyche. As life in the trenches becomes more bleak and the casualties and carnage get even worse, one of the characters slowly begins to lose his mind. This series as a whole, but especially this episode and the trench warfare special, have been very useful sources. Thank you very much for this haunting, yet enlightening series.

  39. You can make the argument that humans by nature are violent or natural warriors and enjoy combat but that only describes a small percentage of species and those people could be classified as sociopaths. We are just not wired to endure things like modern combat. I can't believe that any combat vet doesn't suffer from some sort of mental trauma even those who say they enjoyed the experience. Next time politicians want to start a war they should go through multiple live firing exercises and also experience sever sleep deprivation over a period of time. We would probably never have another war again.

  40. Imagine being one of the five men on the firing squad tasked with the execution of a 13 year old “coward” for failure to go over the top

  41. Regardless of what side of the war they fought on, absolutely none of those men deserved to go through that.

  42. Walla Walla Washington has a VA Hospital and their whole Community is devoted to what he is talking about because I was it child scene a murder mass murder in the seventies and they sent me from military bases all over the United States mostly West Coast and then to Walla Walla because of the mass murderer eyewitness in the 70s I had to have psychological hypnotism to get me to quit having nightmares which would leave me screaming running down the street and the cops got dragged me back PTSD is real and what he's talking about is real

  43. 3:38 to 3:52 sadistic nun… Was literally laughing at the guy. Getting off on his misery. Delusional religionists.

  44. // All Wars Start With Lies , Millions Died In WW1 For What Because Some Wog In East Europe Got Shot So 10 Millions Die And Thousands Wounded For What Politicians Lies ,Soon The End Will Come Then Those Liars Will Answer For The Carnage. !!

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