A vast number of troops were psychologically traumatized by their horrific experiences of trench warfare in World War One.
So-Called ‘War Neurosis’ :
In the British Army alone, 80,000 individuals were treated for such trauma (at the time it was – somewhat disparagingly – referred to as ‘war neurosis’) during the conflict and, additionally, 200,000 received pensions after the war was over for war-related ‘nerves’ (Young, 1995).
So-Called ‘Shell Shock’ :
Due to lack of knowledge about the psychological effects of trauma at the time, and the prevailing ‘stiff upper lip’ type culture, those in authority became worried that these traumatized individuals would make a large proportion of the Army appear ‘weak’ and ‘cowardly.’ This worry, coupled with the predominant medical model interpretation of illness at the time, led to these soldiers’ traumatized condition being referred to as ‘shell shock’.
According to the (incorrect) theory of ‘shell shock’, the soldiers’ traumatized state could be explained by concussion to the head, caused by exploding shells, adversely affecting the brain’s blood vessels. (In this way, the authorities could explain away the troops’ condition as having a physical cause, thus dispelling any notion that it had anything to do with ‘moral weakness’ or ‘cowardice’.)
However, it soon became apparent that a significant number of soldiers who were suffering from ‘war neurosis’ / ‘shell shock’ had NOT been exposed to exploding shells, nor had they been physically wounded ; therefore, another cause needed to be found. In 1918, the psychiatrist, Rivers, who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, proposed such a cause :
Rivers’ (1918) Explanation Of ‘War Neurosis’ – Overwhelming Fear Of Death.
Rivers’ explanation for the cause of ‘war neurosis’ was that it was due to the witnessing of the terrible horrors on the Western Front and an overwhelming fear of death – such intense fear, said Rivers, induced in the soldiers a sense of terror which they could not suppress (due to the instinct of self-preservation) and led to symptoms that were an involuntary response to such terror.
Rivers also stated that his hypothesis was supported by the fact that prisoners of war and the seriously wounded (who were, therefore, no longer able to fight) had a low incidence of ‘war neurosis’; he attributed this to the fact that their lives were no longer in danger.
Rivers’ interpretation of the causes of ‘war neurosis’ significantly helped people to understand that it was NOT a form of cowardice or moral weakness, but, instead, a disturbance to the instinct of self-preservation.
Rivers’ theory, based on his study of soldiers who fought in World War One, can be seen as a very significant step towards our modern-day, more enlightened and compassionate view of individuals suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from which those diagnosed with ‘war neurosis’ or ‘shell shock’ in World War One were, in fact, suffering.
Tragically, this more enlightened view came too late for many.
306 British and Commonwealth Soldiers Were Shot For ‘Cowardice’ In World War One.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).