Shell Shock

Welcome to #WWWednesday! Conflict archaeologist and DV guest columnist Sarah Ashbridge takes a closer look at what caused the infamous ‘thousand yard stare’…

Consider this: approximately 9 million men lost their lives during the Great War. When compared with an estimated 14 million deaths in total during all wars in the previous century, this number seems even more shocking.

The soldiers of World War One were the first to face barbarity on an industrial scale. Daily warfare, inhuman conditions, and constant exposure to death created a lasting impact on the men who survived. By the end of WWI, the British Army had dealt with an estimated 80,000 cases of shell shock: a mental condition triggered as a reaction to the trauma of battle experienced by soldiers.

Medical officer Charles Myers created the term ‘shell shock’ in 1917. The condition would also come to be known as ‘war neurosis’, ‘combat stress’ and finally, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Myers later became uncomfortable with the term ‘shell shock’, as he realised that even men who hadn’t experience the conditions of the front line could suffer from the effects.


Shell shock not only induces stress-related mental conditions, it physically affects soldiers and their ability to fulfil the most basic of tasks. It also affects the personality, turning soldiers into individuals often unrecognisable to their former selves as they struggle to readjust to civilian life. After the Great War, for example, soldiers who had bayoneted enemy soldiers in the face developed twitches in their own facial muscles. Former snipers lost their sight. Uncontrollable diarrhoea, intense anxiety, psychotic visions and stomach cramps were just some of the associated symptoms returning soldiers suffered.

Understanding and Treating Trauma

Witnessing acts of warfare such as killing, torture and the results of shell warfare can be extremely distressing to the human brain. Amongst the Western nations involved in WWI, the British military was the furthest behind in understanding the impact of such trauma.

Treatment for such stresses was given with the purpose of returning men to the front as soon as possible.  Men suffering psychiatric symptoms were branded cowards, lacking in moral fibre, and treated with harsh methods such as electrical shock therapy.  Medical Officers instructed that any soldiers suffering  ‘must be induced to face his illness in a manly way’. Understanding was so poor that during the war, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were shot on the orders of Senior Officers on charges such as desertion or cowardice.

As early as 1917, around one-seventh of all personnel discharged from the British Army for disabilities are now believed to have been sufferers of shell shock. Four-fifths of men treated for shell shock would never return to military duty.

In the early years, shell shock was believed to have been the result of a physical injury to the nerves.   By the end of the Great War, the impact of the illness was visible. Specialist treatment facilities were created as the study of neuropsychiatry developed, employing healing techniques such as hypnosis. Men were no longer sent to mental asylums and institutes, as it was recognised for the first time that shell shock was not a form of mental illness – but a result of war.


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Sarah Ashbridge

Office monkey by day, forensic archaeologist by night, Sarah Ashbridge is a jack-of-all-trades and the master of one: the forensic identification the War Dead. She trained originally as an Egyptologist, but interests in the history of death and burial saw her make the step into archaeology, completing an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. Armed with an ever-increasing library of books, a handful of illustration pens and a brand new trowel, Sarah writes our regular #WWWednesday column, working towards her PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

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