Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

A surface story of glory

Professor Jay Winter on how shell shock manifested itself and how the term serves as a metaphor for the war.
LAURA JAMES: Jay, we’ve seen and read a lot about the nervy men, but can you tell us a little bit more about the physical manifestations of shell-shock?
JAY WINTER: Shell-shock came in many different sizes, shapes, and colours. It could be an entire paralysis of all of the limbs. There were soldiers who couldn’t move at all, and who would be stirred into immediate action only by the word “bomb,” for instance. Where they would immediately move and shuttle under a bed or under any circumstance. So there is a paralysis with a trigger for panic. There were others whose limbs refused to stop and moved in ways that were out of the control of the individual in question, making it evident what linked to the war and to the artillery war in particular, because nobody underneath the barrage controlled.
There were those couldn’t walk straight, and here there’s a really unusual and difficult problem. The problem is did some of those who suffered from shell-shock develop these mannerisms as a result of the disorganisation of their, as it were, their autonomic nervous system of how to walk? Or did they develop a walk based upon other forms of the cultural life of their society? And by that I mean did they see Charlie Chaplin films? Chaplin walked in the most extraordinarily disorganised way, with his feet turned out, his limbs, shall we say, at anybody’s command.
And when you look at the films of shell-shocked men, frequently what you find is their attempt to try to control their body and their failure to do so. And some of them try to control their body in the way Chaplin did. The difference was Chaplin was a genius, and an artist who could turn it on and off, and they couldn’t. There are many other instances of what shell-shock looked like, and we know this from medical archives. I found, 25 years ago now, a series of training films for doctors to say this is what it looked like because it was so scary.
I would imagine you could assume that any part of your body that you wanted to command into action wouldn’t reply. That’s one reason why I call shell-shock a mutiny against a war that put men in places and under stresses that they couldn’t stand. And if your body refuses to obey your orders for the left foot to follow the right foot, then you can see a disorganisation of the human body, which follows and maybe even reflects the disorganisation of the human mind. It is, in some respects, terrifying. It’s certainly sad.
But watching these men was one of most difficult things I’ve ever done in historical research, and I’m proud to say, to add to that, that when I did this research that went into the series, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century is the first historian to find the families of the men and ask them permission to show their family members suffering on film. No other documentary history has done that before or since to recognise these are people in families. When you see many films of war, the television is full of them, they’re done so fast that nobody deals with the fundamental ethical question that you’re regarding the suffering of other human beings.
Shell-shock is one of the most extreme cases, and that’s one of the reasons why I spent a year finding these families. Everyone gave permission. But nobody asks.
JAY WINTER: Normally. Fortunately, our case was the exception.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Jay, you’ve also describe shell-shock as a metaphor for the entire experience of the Great War. Can you tell us what you meant by that?
JAY WINTER: The term “shell-shock” has this wonderful compression. It doesn’t exist in any other language. All the other languages that try to find a phrase fail to have the simplicity of the term. It became a metaphor for surviving the war with something slightly odd about you. And I think the reason why it was so good is that it captured the revolution and violence in these pieces of shrapnel and the industrialisation of war and the dominance of artillery. The battlefield was dominated not by the machine gun, but by the artillery barrages that were launched from between 20 to 50 kilometres away, with incredible accuracy, I must say.
And so it caught in the word “shell” the source of the shock, and, if you will, you can describe–and I think it should only be used in describing individuals– but the metaphor describes societies that come back from combat with a surface story of glory and an underlife of suffering. The term “shell-shocked” captures that reality underneath the rhetoric of a victory. That’s why I think it’s true to say that there are a hundred stories in every combatant country in the First World War and many of them are complicated by the fact that they lost. What would Australia’s 100 stories have been if Australia or Britain somehow had lost the war, or a compromised peace, something else happened?
The language would have been different. “Shell-shock” is an English phrase of genius that captures what happened not only to the man who faced this world of artillery but to the societies that sent them there.
LAURA JAMES: In many of the 100 stories, trauma became a recurring theme for us. Men often complained of nervousness, sleeplessness, and nightmares long after the fighting had ended. The doctors examining these men were often reluctant to grant pensions or to even acknowledge an illness, believing that during the war they were just trying to escape the front lines. And afterwards, that they were simply seeking a welfare payment. But was it possible for this type of trauma to lay dormant for many years and then recur later?
JAY WINTER: There are two kinds of disability that occurred in hundreds, thousands of cases of soldiers of the First World War, all over the world. The first kind is what I would call immediate paralysis, defining paralysis more generally as a failed body function, arm, legs, speech, hearing, sight. Blindness could be induced, even though the person had perfect eyes. The second kind of disability is the traumatic onset of war-related disability 40, 50 years later. The rhythms of work no longer create a barrier. Then the nightmares come back.
And here’s a story I think in the history of war that we know much better now because of the effect of the Holocaust and the survivor’s tales, that traumatic memory is a time bomb that can explode 40 years down the line. So there are two instances that are entirely separate, one related to the immediate onset of the physical condition, which is a conversion system of an emotional state into a physical one. And the second one is, as it were, an internal illness which is controllable by the individual who suffers it, frequently aggravating it because treatment early could be better than treatment later at a period when treatment was at a premium anyway.
So the sadness of I think the ANZAC generation is in their latter years when the nightmares come back, and the defences that adults have against thinking about the awfulness that took place once upon a time when those defences are raised. And it’s an extraordinary story, but it happened in England with the very last Tommy who died, Harry Patch, who died over 100 years old didn’t talk about anything for 60 years. 60 years, and only when he got near centenary celebration for his own life did he start talking about how absolutely horrific the First World War was and nothing to celebrate whatsoever. What was it that made him speak at the end of his life?
The emergence of what might be described as delayed trauma. So traumatic memory is very different from shell-shock. Traumatic memory takes a lifetime to play out, frequently with enormous difficulty along the way. If you can think of the repression of these memories as a daily event, it’s like mental callisthenics. Down, boy. I won’t talk about the war today. I won’t think about it today. Imagine how individuals would be threatened by ANZAC Day, would be threatened by everybody talking about it when my ideas are not to talk about. Then later on when the defences, physical, emotional, and maybe even the rhythms of daily life, start to lessen, then they come back.
LAURA JAMES: It’s depressing to remember.
JAY WINTER: I think there’s, as we’ve always talked to amongst us, Laura, the word “memory” is quicksilver, and “traumatic memory” is a quicksilver term that can mean many different things. I take it to mean the sadness of the elderly in reflecting on the violence of their youth.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: And you just mentioned then institutions. This might be a good chance to ask you about when the soldiers came back from war, the whole variety of treatments on offer to treat that shell-shock Conditions, obviously that depended on what country you lived in, what means you had available, even the personal theories and ideas of the doctor that was treating you. But could you elaborate on some of the treatments that were on offer in the interwar years?
JAY WINTER: Many of the men who were treated for shell-shock were treated in ways that now appear absurd. Warm baths, knitting lessons, and so on. But others actually had another difficulty, which was that the doctors– again in the assumptions of their time, not blaming them they were just people like you and me no more no less– made a distinction between the aetiology of mental illness, its origin, its treatments outcome for officers and for men in the ranks. And I’ve never understood why they did this. It’s like the distinction between the man who took the sword into battle, an officer, and the poor enlisted man who took those pieces of metal.
They both suffered the same stresses, and why should they have alternative forms of illness? So for officers they had nervous breakdowns. For men in the ranks, they had paralysis. And the notion of paralysis goes back to the use of the word “hysteria.” Hysteria is taken from a physiological description of a woman’s reproductive organs, so that the women who were paralysed, who were powerless in the 19th century, became the model for the enlisted man who suffered paralysis. As if officers never had paralysis or enlisted men never had a nervous breakdown. So the treatment is immediately class-specific.
The harshest form of treatment for all of these conditions was electroconvulsive shock treatment, and we know that it was used extensively in varying ways. And in fact that treatment is still in use to this day, because even though nobody has any idea why, very severely depressed individuals seem to get better through the use of this method. It seems to produce some kind of epileptic seizure that produces chemicals that reduces depression. That’s the kind of confusion I’m talking about in the years immediately after the First World War and to this day.
The way in which shell-shock affects the mind is unknown, and so are the, by the way, so are the effects of both the psychoactive drugs that are now used, and the electroconvulsive shock treatments that followed. It’s one of those areas that make doctors nervous, because it isn’t positivist. It doesn’t advance into the future. The way in which men were treated in the First World War varies so enormously. There was the beginnings of psychoanalysis, but there were too many people who were shell-shocked for Freud’s talking through to work. So they tried whatever they could. The last, I think, element to treatment I’d like to point to is no treatment at all.
And in 1985, this is long time ago, I remember a dear friend who was the psychiatrist at the University of Warwick, where I taught at the time. She took me to a hospital in Warwick where there was a ward of men who were shell-shocked from the first World War who had been there since 1919. And they had no treatment at all, ever. They were simply put out of the line of sight of society. They were an embarrassment. They seemed like genial old men who served life imprisonment for having shell-shock. And my understanding is they were never treated. They were never treated for anything. They simply were left there to pass away.
LAURA JAMES: Jay, as we’ve mentioned, a lot of these stories are very personal. We were just wondering, do you think there are those stories that shouldn’t be told?
JAY WINTER: My view, Laura, is that the families of the individual whose war service triggers the narrative need to be asked that question. And I’m not even sure we should always accept their answer, because there may be a conflict between what the family wants and what the truth requires. But I believe that these are people whose lives entail years of enduring suffering. And regarding the pain of others requires us to have their view on that issue. Historians are too far outsiders to give an absolute answer to it, and I think I’m old enough to say that the rigid yes, all story should be told, it calculates a degree of insensitivity to the people whose lives we’re talking about.
So everything should be told, however, I do think that every one of the 100 stories, in fact I’d say all war stories, are filled with silences. And sometimes the silences are louder than the voices that we hear. And to attend to what families don’t say, what’s not in the file, what’s not in the repat records, what’s not in the family photographs may be as important as to see what is there. And the business of an historian is to hear silence.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: To end on, Jay, we’re conscious that you’re a historian who’s worked with many different mediums the documentary, creating the Historial de la Grande Guerre. Do you think the 100 stories project works as a medium? And do you think that it can be described as a particular thing? Is it a line of historical inquiry? Is it a memorial? What do you think?
JAY WINTER: 100 stories is a window onto a world of grey adjustment to the violence of the 20th century, and as such, it is an extremely valuable addition to the more general national narratives. It must be understood that it’s only one side of the war. And if behind every single Australian family story there is an Austrian family story or a Polish family story or a Hungarian one or a Turkish one or a Serb, then I think the project will have done something important, which is to document the view I’ve had for decades that the First World War is a story of the betrayal of the common decencies of ordinary people by military and political leaders who had so little imagination they had no idea of the forces of violence that they were letting go, that they were leading to the destructive end that they did.
If it opens up a transnational world of war which is what it was, then I think that’s the future. And the collection of these stories is an essential step towards that future of war as the misery of every man and every woman.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Thanks so much, Jay.
LAURA JAMES: Thank you.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: To view the full contingent of the 100 stories, visit us online.

Watch Professor Jay Winter talk about how shell shock manifested itself and how the term serves as a metaphor for the war.

A list of supplementary readings from the interview with Professor Jay Winter is available from the Downloads section of this step. We hope you find it useful.

This article is from the free online

World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now