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Response to Review of They Called it Shell Shock. Combat Stress in the First World War

In his thoughtful and comprehensive review, Michael Robinson flags up two limitations of They Called it Shell Shock. Firstly, I had suggested that ‘most soldiers who had gone through the horrors of frontline fighting could not let go of their terrifying experiences’ but this may only have applied to those who received hospital treatment for psychological trauma. Secondly, I emphasised the particular stress associated with trench warfare but did not compare the prevalence of shell shock at the Western Front with that from other campaigns. I agree that both aspects are very important and worthy of further enquiry, which would have to include analysis of post-war medical and pension records and private archives. It is unknown what proportion of First World War veterans were psychologically scarred for life by the combat experience, and the answer will largely depend on the threshold applied because at a certain level probably all veterans were haunted by memories of the war for the rest of their lives. Since the publication of They Called it Shell Shock I had the opportunity to discuss the psychological impact of the First World War with several local history societies and was stunned by the high proportion of people in their 70s and 80s who reported vivid memories of fathers, uncles or grandfathers functionally disabled by their traumatic memories of the War. However, I agree that such anecdotal evidence should be captured more formally, and perhaps a ‘citizen science’ project collecting family memories could be a way of approaching this.

The second point – the comparison of campaigns – equally would be a highly desirable enterprise. At a recent European conference at Bad Irsee in Germany, historians from Austria, Belgium, France Germany, Italy and Britain reported on their research into shell shock, which included not only the Western Front but also the Eastern and Italian Fronts. Through single case reports, I could catch a glimpse of the range of posttraumatic reactions, including very bizarre re-enactments of battle scenes, night terrors and seizures. However, most research is not focusing on the exact psychopathology of traumatised soldiers, or cultural factors that might have influenced the presentations of trauma. A study of the Rosenhügel Mental Hospital in Vienna during World War One by Dr Dave Bandke (as presented at the Irsee conference) showed that ‘hysteria’ was a diagnosis given to the lower ranks, whereas higher-ranking officers were diagnosed with ‘neurasthenia’ or mental exhaustion. However, these diagnostic labels were based on already established concepts (the ‘neurasthenic’ upper-class patient and the ‘hysterical’ labourer) rather than exact psychopathology. This is why diagnostic labels do not always mirror the exact symptoms of traumatised soldiers, and further transcultural research into the exact nature of psychological reactions (also dependent on static versus mobile warfare) to the trauma of the First World War are needed. I agree that a comparison with non-European campaigns would be very relevant although I could very well envisage that the psychological stresses of the relentless guerrilla warfare in East Africa were at least comparable to those of Ypres and the Somme.