Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) was not a diagnosis during World War I, and psychiatry was a relatively new medical discipline. No one knew how intensely stress affects the mind. Not long after the war began, a new disease — first coined shell shock in 1915 but not in common use until later — began showing up in otherwise healthy soldiers.
The disease originally presented itself in soldiers who had been near exploding shells. For this reason, doctors concluded the disease was physical, the result of brain or nerve injuries caused by shock waves or perhaps poisons emitted from shells.
- Ringing in the ears
- Nervous twitches and ticks
- Sensitivity to sound
- Uncontrollable diarrhea
- Hysterical blindness
- A blank stare
Many symptoms were associated with injuries, but the men had no physical wounds.
Because medical personnel did not understand the causes of shell shock, sufferers were unfairly labeled cowards, trouble makers and unable to get a grip on reality. Some were executed for military cowardice, especially if their symptoms returned after treatment.
Shell shock was something to be ashamed of and commentary on a soldier’s masculinity.
Despite the newness of psychiatry, it increasingly was becoming an accepted form of medical treatment. Doctors began recognizing war neuroses as a psychiatric condition.
In time, armies learned how to treat shell shock.
Men showing symptoms were allowed a few days rest to prevent a more serious case. If this didn’t work, the soldier was sent to a casualty clearing station for observation and finally to a psychiatric hospital.
Although many men were treated and sent back to the front, the majority did not return to the battlefield. Many continued to receive help years after the war ended while others didn’t develop shell shock until returning to civilian life.
The following is film footage of a shell shock victim.
Updated: 20 October 2020
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