Shell Shock Afflicted Healthy Men: PTSD During WW1

The stare of a shell shock victim

Shell Shock Afflicted Healthy Men: PTSD During WW1

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.

Symptoms included:

  • Headache
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Nervous twitches and ticks
  • Dizziness
  • Amnesia
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Uncontrollable diarrhea
  • Nightmares
  • Hysterical blindness
  • Flashbacks
  • A blank stare

Many symptoms were associated with injuries, but the men had no physical wounds.

Misunderstood Disease

A shell shock patient in his wheelchair
A shell shock patient in his wheelchair

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.

“Military and medical authorities were convinced that many soldiers exhibiting the characteristic symptoms — trembling ‘rather like a jelly shaking’; headache; tinnitus, or ringing in the ear; dizziness; poor concentration; confusion; loss of memory; and disorders of sleep — had been nowhere near exploding shells,” Smithsonian magazine explains. “Rather, their condition was one of “neurasthenia,” or weakness of the nerves — in laymen’s terms, a nervous breakdown precipitated by the dreadful stress of war.”


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
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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