Caroline Alexander: The Shock of War

Roundup: Talking About History

[Caroline Alexander’s latest book is The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.]

In September 1914, at the very outset of the great war, a dreadful rumor arose. It was said that at the Battle of the Marne, east of Paris, soldiers on the front line had been discovered standing at their posts in all the dutiful military postures—but not alive. “Every normal attitude of life was imitated by these dead men,” according to the patriotic serial The Times History of the War, published in 1916. “The illusion was so complete that often the living would speak to the dead before they realized the true state of affairs.” “Asphyxia,” caused by the powerful new high-explosive shells, was the cause for the phenomenon—or so it was claimed. That such an outlandish story could gain credence was not surprising: notwithstanding the massive cannon fire of previous ages, and even automatic weaponry unveiled in the American Civil War, nothing like this thunderous new artillery firepower had been seen before. A battery of mobile 75mm field guns, the pride of the French Army, could, for example, sweep ten acres of terrain, 435 yards deep, in less than 50 seconds; 432,000 shells had been fired in a five-day period of the September engagement on the Marne. The rumor emanating from there reflected the instinctive dread aroused by such monstrous innovation. Surely—it only made sense—such a machine must cause dark, invisible forces to pass through the air and destroy men’s brains.

Shrapnel from mortars, grenades and, above all, artillery projectile bombs, or shells, would account for an estimated 60 percent of the 9.7 million military fatalities of World War I. And, eerily mirroring the mythic premonition of the Marne, it was soon observed that many soldiers arriving at the casualty clearing stations who had been exposed to exploding shells, although clearly damaged, bore no visible wounds. Rather, they appeared to be suffering from a remarkable state of shock caused by blast force. This new type of injury, a British medical report concluded, appeared to be “the result of the actual explosion itself, and not merely of the missiles set in motion by it.” In other words, it appeared that some dark, invisible force had in fact passed through the air and was inflicting novel and peculiar damage to men’s brains.

“Shell shock,” the term that would come to define the phenomenon, first appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet in February 1915, only six months after the commencement of the war. In a landmark article, Capt. Charles Myers of the Royal Army Medical Corps noted “the remarkably close similarity” of symptoms in three soldiers who had each been exposed to exploding shells: Case 1 had endured six or seven shells exploding around him; Case 2 had been buried under earth for 18 hours after a shell collapsed his trench; Case 3 had been blown off a pile of bricks 15 feet high. All three men exhibited symptoms of “reduced visual fields,” loss of smell and taste, and some loss of memory. “Comment on these cases seems superfluous,” Myers concluded, after documenting in detail the symptoms of each. “They appear to constitute a definite class among others arising from the effects of shell-shock.”

Early medical opinion took the common-sense view that the damage was “commotional,” or related to the severe concussive motion of the shaken brain in the soldier’s skull. Shell shock, then, was initially deemed to be a physical injury, and the shellshocked soldier was thus entitled to a distinguishing “wound stripe” for his uniform, and to possible discharge and a war pension. But by 1916, 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. 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.

Organic injury from blast force? Or neurasthenia, a psychiatric disorder inflicted by the terrors of modern warfare? Unhappily, the single term “shell shock” encompassed both conditions. Yet it was a nervous age, the early 20th century, for the still-recent assault of industrial technology upon age-old sensibilities had given rise to a variety of nervous afflictions....

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