Recent World War One footage released by British Pathe shows the disturbing effects of shell shock on a soldier’s system. Uncontrollable shaking, terrifying nightmares and lying on the floor convulsing were just some of the ways that traumatised soldiers reacted.
By 1918, there were over 80,000 British servicemen suffering from the condition. They were the hidden walking wounded, men whose suffering lead to heartache for families who had been praying for their safe return from the front.
It was initially thought the trauma was due to the actual exploding of shells in close proximity to soldiers – hence the term ‘shell shock’. However, it soon became clear that this was a false assumption when other men, serving far from the front line, presented with the symptoms, which were wide ranging.
The condition was also referred to as ‘war neurosis’, ‘combat stress’ and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Hysteria, anxiety, paralysis, muscle contractions, even blindness and deafness were just some of its effects. Other signs were nightmares, insomnia, palpitations, depression and disorientation.
At the time, most shell shock victims were treated with little sympathy. Their symptoms were believed to be a sign of weakness. As a result, in several medical establishments, many victims endured further trauma by being given treatments such as solitary confinement or electric shock therapy.
But at one military hospital – Newton Abbott’s Seale Hayne in Devon – the approach was very different due to the revolutionary approach of Dr Arthur Hurst (left), an army major, who believed he could cure every shell shock victim.
Hurst used treatments such as hypnosis, persuasion, massage and dietary treatments to cure his patients. His method meant that he was able to cure up to 90 percent of shell shocked soldiers in just one session.
In a disturbing video released by British Pathe, a semi-naked solider at Seale Hayne hospital can be seen falling to the floor in a fit after shaking and staggering around the stark, bare room.
But after treatment, the man is seen wearing his uniform marching confidently towards the camera.
Major Hurst encouraged his patients to shoot and also staged a reconstruction of the battlefields of Flanders on Dartmoor to help them relive their experiences.
Hurst’s pioneering work did much to ease the suffering of men who had already been through hell and back. His devotion to his patients and his innovative approach to their treatment makes him a true hero of the war years and afterwards.
Check out these films from British Pathe to see the full horror of shell shock.
Thank goodness there was at least one doctor like Hurst. The military attitude of “suck it up and be a man” isn’t gone even today, but at least more realize the reality of PTSD. And more are getting real help.
One can only wonder at how little has been learned in the years that followed.
David, interesting blogs. My own grandfather served in the Munster Fusiliers in World War One and came home shell-shocked. He spent two years in Leopardstown hospital being treated for the condition. And like a lot of ex-servicemen he found it difficult to get regular work and had to return to England to work. But he still managed to have 10 children, three of whom are still alive today.
It’s men like your grandad who, I think, have been overlooked and deserve recognition for what they did and how they suffered in the Great War. Check out the Pathe footage, it is unsettling. Incidentally, Michael, I loved that picture you posted on Facebook of Dublin in the 1880s. It’s an amazing shot. Hope you’re well
David, good to hear from you. Still see you as a smiling, eager freelance, not as an author and a family man. See now who’s stuck in the past. The picture came courtesy of the bould Eanna Btophy through Facebook. Incidentally, there is an Irish Press Journalists Group on Facebook, run by Ronan Quinlan which can be quite hilarious, especially when Paddy Madden gets going. Regards Michael
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‘Smiling eager freelance’…those were the days. I’ve been meaning to join the Facebook group for ages. I’ve just put in a request to be part of it. Thanks, MIchael!
Thank you, David. I’ve been interested in this topic ever since reading Pat Barker’s WWI trilogy and had never seen any actual film footage. Very sad, but heartening to know Dr. Hurst and others like him were beginning to alleviate the suffering. I’m bookmarking the Pathe site!
Thanks for commenting, Suzanne. Yes, the footage is very sad. Hurst seems to have been a remarkably perceptive man, way ahead of his time.
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