Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A NAME FOR MORE THAN BATTLE FATIGUE

More from our friends at Delancey Place


"By 1916 the armies of Britain, France and Germany were being diminished not just by the numbers of men killed and wounded but by something so new to human experience that the English had to coin a name for it: shell shock. By the thousands and then the tens of thousands, soldiers on the Western Front were being turned into zombies and freaks without suffering physical injuries of any kind.

"The phenomenon appeared in 1914, and at first no one knew what to make of it. The medical services on both sides found themselves confronted with bizarre symptoms: men in a trancelike state, men shaking uncontrollably, men frozen in weird postures, or partly paralyzed, or (though unwounded) unable to see or hear or speak. By December British doctors were reporting that between three and four percent of the British Expeditionary Force's enlisted men and up to ten percent of its officers were displaying symptoms of this kind. Their German counterparts would record almost twelve thousand such cases in the first year of the war.

"The victims got little sympathy. Career officers were accustomed to separating soldiers into four groups: the healthy, the sick, the wounded, and the cowards. They were predisposed to put men with nervous and mental disorders into the last category, to order them back to duty, and to mete out harsh punishment to any who failed to obey. But the number of men who failed to obey became too big to be ignored or to be put in front of firing squads; it has been estimated that twenty four thousand had been sent home to Britain by 1916.

"...Gradually it became clear that ...the troops were cracking because they could not absorb what was happening to them, because they knew themselves to be utterly powerless (bravery had little survival value when one was on the receiving end of a bombardment), and because they had no confidence that the generals who had put them in danger knew what they were doing. Men whose courage was beyond challenge could and did break down if subjected to enough strain of this kind."

G.J. Meyer, A World Undone, Delacorte Press, 2006, pp. 339-342

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