The Story of the Shell Shocked Soldier (1916)
Medical orderlies tend to the wounded in a trench during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in 1916. The man on the left is suffering from Shell Shock.
The Battle of Flers–Courcelette in 1916 was fought during the Battle of the Somme in France, by the French 6th Army and the British 4th Army and Reserve Army, against the German 1st Army, during World War I.
World War I pushed hundreds of thousands of men beyond the limits of human endurance. They faced weapons that denied any chance for heroism or courage or even military skill because the artillery weapons that caused 60% of all casualties were miles away from the battlefield.
Tanks were used in battle for the first time in history. The Canadian Corps and the New Zealand Division fought for the first time on the Somme. In September 1916, Jagdstaffel 2, a specialist fighter squadron, began operations with 5 new Albatros D.I. fighters, which were capable of challenging British air supremacy for the first time since the beginning of the battle.
In a trench during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette — or the Somme Offensive in September 1916, a war photographer took the photo above. Part of the scene he captured is the shell-shocked soldier sitting in corner looking directly at the camera with his eyes expressing the madness of the war.
In that particular moment in time, everything he’s been raised to work within, the social constructs that make up every part of his life just exploded and shattered to nothing, and he’s lying there, slumped in a trench, afraid for his life, hearing and seeing death around him, his entire psyche broken.
Even more haunting is when you think that people back then didn’t smile for the pictures.
The term “shell shock” was coined by the soldiers themselves.
The shell shock symptoms included fatigue, tremor, confusion, nightmares and impaired sight and hearing, an inability to reason, hysterical paralysis, and a dazed thousand-yard stare.
It was often diagnosed when a soldier was unable to function and no obvious cause could be identified. “Simply put, after even the most obedient soldier had enough shells rain down on him, without any means of fighting back, he often lost all self-control”.
While the term shell shock is no longer used in medical or military discourse, it has entered into popular imagination and memory, and is often identified as the signature injury of the war.
Shell shock would later be called “war neurosis”. It’s similar to but not the same thing as PTSD. Like in the case of PTSD, mental stress leads to dramatic physical difficulties.
The shell-shocked soldier’s eyes express the madness of the war. The soldier looks like he has gone insane from what he has seen.
Some men suffering from shell shock were put on trial, and even executed, for military crimes including desertion and cowardice. While it was recognized that the stresses of war could cause men to break down, a lasting episode was likely to be seen as symptomatic of an underlying lack of character.
For instance, in his testimony to the post-war Royal Commission examining shell-shock, Lord Gort said that shell-shock was a weakness and was not found in “good” units.
It’s unclear how many were shell-shocked and convicted of cowardice or desertion when they really were insane. Later the British government gave pardon to the soldiers executed for cowardice and desertion, in this way officially recognizing the shell shock effect the war had in its troops.