Stefanie Linden: They Called It Shell Shock. Combat Stress in the First World War

they-called-it-shell-shockAbout one year ago I was honoured to receive the Edmonds Prize for my book proposal on shell shock (full story here). Now I am very pleased to see the final product – They Called It Shell Shock – appear in the Wolverhampton Military Studies series.  During the last year, I spent a great deal of time liaising with archives, museums, libraries and private collectors about images that would illustrate the experience of the traumatised soldiers on both sides of the trenches of the Great War – and was pleased to see 75 of them included in the final manuscript. I also researched the wider context of the patient files – those from London in the UK and Berlin and Jena in Germany – that form the backbone of my book. This resulted in a detailed survey of the disposal system for shell shock cases, and the responses of the medical and military apparatus to this unprecedented challenge.

At the core of They Called It Shell Shock are the individual case histories of the traumatised soldiers, which provide harrowing accounts of the experience of trench warfare. The records allow us to enter a world which – since the last veterans of the Great War have passed away – is now inaccessible through living memory.

British Pathe footage – Seale Hayne Military Hospital, Devon, UK – 1918

The nature of modern industrialised warfare – with its new weapons, bigger armies, increasing casualty figures and anonymity of fighting – had considerably increased the stresses imposed on the individual soldier. Static or trench warfare, as opposed to mobile warfare, often forced the soldier to remain in one position for days – sometimes barely able to move, because any twitch turned him into an easy target for enemy snipers. Boredom and monotony, passivity and a lack of distraction were the result; the soldier was left alone with his thoughts and fears. There was also the sight of destruction, of mutilated bodies and of corpses; the relentless shelling – sometimes going on for hours and hours, day on day. Men exposed to these stresses were under continuous pressure. The case records provide unique access to their memories and experiences, both at the frontline and during their odyssey through the military hospital system.

I have organised the analysis of the case records along themes that mark their interest to wider military history: suicide, desertion, rank and class, treatment and scientific progress and, last but not least, the comparison between the British and German medical, military and legal systems. Although other books have documented the contemporaneous medical debates on shell shock, none has analysed comprehensive sets of case records from both sides. With my background – as a German-born doctor and scholar who has lived in Wales for the last 12 years – I was particularly intrigued by this European perspective.

In February 2016 I had the opportunity to present my work at an international workshop at the monastery of Bad Irsee in Southern Germany, which was attended by colleagues from Austria, Italy, Belgium, France and Germany who had looked at records of shell shock patients from their own countries. Our discussions revealed striking differences in the reaction to combat stress in the different countries – even between countries that fought on the same side. This pointed to an influence of cultural factors that is still very relevant to the understanding of mental disorder today. I also learnt that, although there is a great amount of interest in the experiences of shell shock amongst European historians, none of the records analysed so far are as detailed as ours from London and Germany.

In addition to such international scientific debates I also had the equally rewarding opportunity of presenting my work to local and military historians in the UK – for example to the Glamorgan Family History Society. Clearly, people are fascinated by the experience of shell shock for a wide variety of reasons – for example, because their ancestors fought in the Great War, or because they are interested in the history of individual military units, or because they want to find out more about the relationship between shell shock and present-day post-traumatic stress disorder. And just to mention that my research is ongoing – I am always interested in contact with other researchers working in the area or with groups of local historians or with museums planning to set up exhibitions on shell shock.

They Called It Shell Shock. Combat Stress in the First World War is available to pre-order here.

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