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Shell shock: Beyond the limits of human endurance

Professor Jay Winter on the emergence of the term shell shock and how that condition came to be understood.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Jay, we’ve talked about the way the war marked men physically. But perhaps, we could talk a little bit more in detail about how the war marked minds. Shell-shock is a thing that comes up again and again in the 100 stories. Would you be able to tell us a bit about how that term was coined and the idea that perhaps there was a physical origin for the condition?
JAY WINTER: Shell-shock is a term that its inventor wanted to suppress.
A British physician, who had been an anthropologist, a very interesting man named Myers, published an article about what might have been concussion in the inner ear or in the brain, produced by heavy shelling. And in it, he used the term shell-shock which is marvellously English in that it’s entirely vertical. The shock of the war is what everybody knew, and the cause of it was artillery, was shelling. So it has a brilliant simplification.
Within a few weeks, he found examples of people who were paralysed without a scratch who hadn’t been anywhere near artillery, and wrote back to the journal saying, could I retract it? And they said, sorry. The cat’s out of the bag. We can’t do it. Everybody’s using the phrase. And what happened in the course of the First World War was a series of efforts to try to capture a condition that physicians have never seen before. And the conditions were primarily conversion symptoms, which means a physical form to an emotional state.
If someone had been in Gallipoli, and the trench had fallen in, burying him alive, then that individual, after being rescued by his mates, that individual could have a host of paralytic seizures without any physiological origin to them. So if someone literally couldn’t move his leg or his arm after having been buried alive, it’s a conversion of the emotional state of being buried alive into a physical state. And the treatment of that was virtually unknown at the time, sometimes denied entirely as a form of cowardice. But what makes shell-shock so extraordinary Bec that there is a hint of doubts about the masculinity of the men who suffer from it.
And therefore, the stigma attached to this particular disability was greater perhaps than anything other than loss of genitals, which in turn had psychological sequela, obviously. But the fundamental problem was that soldiers who fought in the contained war of the Western Front or in some sense its repetition on the shores of Gallipoli, were unable to protect their bodies from extraordinary violence, which everyone knew was coming– everybody knew it was coming. And everybody had been under for a lengthy period of time. And the doctors at the time recognised that we needed to redefine a notion of what constituted courage. Courage is literally standing the artillery war that was the first of its kind in history.
And there are men who couldn’t stand that, couldn’t withstand the way Ernst Junger put it. It’s like watching a giant with a giant hammer swing it and missing your head by a quarter of an inch, and then having to do that another 200 times. The notion of shell-shock had stigma attached to it, and it had a notion of masculinity opposed to it. And if you put those together, you can see the extent to which anyone who had psychological damage in the course of the First World War faced an uphill struggle first of all, to admit it to himself; secondly, to get a doctor to admit that that’s what it was.
And thirdly, to get his mates to recognise that men who are shell-shocked are brave men who were pushed beyond the limits of human endurance. And it is that which I think made the circumstances of shell-shocked men so difficult. They had to prove that they were men, and brave, and that they had withstood appalling tension and threats to their bodily integrity that others had not been able to withstand. Everybody who served in the trenches saw dismembered bodies, dismembered horses. The notion of the integrity of the body which is so central to our notion of dignity, literally, the word integrity, whole body– these were blown to pieces by the artillery war.
And the result of it was the construction of a nightmare of battle on top of the horrors of the day.
LAURA JAMES: As you just mentioned, doctors during the war were often reluctant to diagnose any kind of nervous disability. Did this change after the war?
JAY WINTER: Laura, I think the story is universally no. It took the Second World War for there to be a much more open acknowledgment on the part of the military medical world, that those who go into combat are likely to be broken by it. And only in the appalling conditions of the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy and some of the fighting that circulated around Caen in Normandy, or in the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944 do we find instances where physicians recognise that the exceptional men are those who do not have psychological injury rather than the other way around.
In the 1920s and ’30s, you would have expected physicians to be compassionate people, but ones with a notion of masculinity which made it doubtful whether a man who is shaking all over could be called a man, could be called brave, could be called a soldier, could be called a hero, could be called an Anzac Whatever the terms of honour are, they didn’t extend to those who were shell-shocked And I think the reason is people who suffer from nervous diseases or mental illness frighten us. They frighten us still. But they frighten us more than for a whole series of reasons related to what I would call Victorian assumptions about gender difference, that men stand up. They go through awful things.
They may shake, but they stop shaking. So if someone can’t stop, that made him something other than a man. All of these issues lead me to believe that doctors with humane hearts ascribed to other conditions, the wounds that were psychological in origin, and thereby enabled men who were wounded to get a pension for something they didn’t have. That, I would call, a humane fiction. On the other hand, so many instances are well known all over the world where those who should have received help didn’t. And that’s where the family comes in. The family have to clean up the mess that war creates, because the state either refuses to look and acknowledge, or looks and turns away.
I recur again to that great unknown question which is the children. The reason I mention that is that in the 1980s and ’90s, when these children of the First World War are in their latter years, there’s an efflorescence, a burst of interest in the First World War. And I think it’s the children of those who came back are the ones who created it, like Pat Barker, who was the daughter of a shell-shocked man, who simply upped and left his family.
And then her mother found another shell-shocked man to live with, and she grew up with this in her latter years, creating some of the finest fiction to attach to the First World War and expand the memory boom that has surrounded it. The lives of families last a long time. And the children of those who fought in the First World War probably have created more of the culture of Anzac Day than we recognise.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: And the repatriation files, I suppose we’re fortunate, can give us a slight insight into maybe some of the conditions. We have instances of wives writing about the domestic space so we can get an insight into what children were living with. But it’s so hard to hear that testimony again. The family space is often so hard to tap into.
JAY WINTER: We also don’t know what children said to each other. For instance, on Anzac Day, what did children do? They tagged along. But what did it mean to them? How much of that private story of suffering were they able to live with and make compatible with the public story of heroism? In many ways, the national stories are not the real stories of Anzac. The real stories are when the shutters are drawn down in an afternoon and a family lives with what it and only it knows.

Watch Professor Jay Winter discuss the emergence of the term shell shock and how that condition came to be understood.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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