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A Shattered Mind: Shell Shock in the First World War


World War I was an apocalypse that scarred the minds of men forever. The conflict introduced unprecedented firepower that completely vanquished anything in its path. Of the 9.7 million military fatalities in the Great War, an estimated 60 percent of those were a result of shrapnel from mortars, grenades, and artillery projectile bombs, better know as shells. For example, in the seven-day bombardment leading up to the Battle of the Somme, 1.7 million shells were fired at the German lines. The warring powers pulverized one another with these overwhelming concentrations of firepower throughout the war. Advancements in military technology created a chilling effect among the soldiers that experienced combat in the First World War.

A British soldier standing among a massive pile of empty shell cases. (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)

In 1917, Charles Myers of the Royal Army Medical Corps first used the term “shell shock” to describe the trauma that soldiers experienced from being exposed to heavy bombardment. The symptoms of shell shock varied and included debilitating anxiety, persistent nightmares, and physical conditions such as loss of sight. While the circumstances behind this phenomenon became gradually clearer, the horrifying signs of physical and emotional damage to soldiers were evident from the outset of World War I. At the Battle of the Marne in 1914, it was said that soldiers on the front line were discovered dutifully standing at their posts, but the signs of life in them was gone. As The Times History of the War recorded, “Every normal attitude of life was imitated by these dead men.”

The symptoms of shell shock were not exclusive to the men who had been exposed to heavy bombardment. As a result of this, the term was broadened to include the physical and psychological effects produced by the experience of combat.

A British soldier carrying a wounded comrade during the Battle of the Somme. (Photo: telegraph.co.uk)

By the end of the First World War, the British Army had dealt with around 80,000 cases of shell shock. Only one-fifth of the men who were treated in hospitals for the condition ever returned to military duty. Wilfred Owen was a soldier and patient of one of these hospitals. In a poem titled Mental Cases, Owen later wrote of his fellow comrades afflicted with shell shock, “These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.”

Sources

history.com: Psychiatrist reports on the phenomenon of shell shock.

smithsonianmag.com: The Shock of War.

telegraph.co.uk: Ten facts about the Battle of the Somme.

wilfredowen.org: Mental Cases.

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