The shocks and shells of the Somme

British high command’s fear that shell shock would become an ‘epidemic’ resulted in the barbarous treatment of hundreds of sufferers in the first world war

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme, 1916 Taylor Downing

Little, Brown, pp.401, £25, ISBN: 9781408706619

In the final months of 1914, medical officers on the Western Front began seeing a new kind of casualty. Soldiers who had no physical injury were displaying a wide range of alarming symptoms. Some appeared to be completely dazed or were shaking uncontrollably, others had lost their sense of taste or smell, or were suffering from blindness, mutism and various kinds of paralysis. It was not until February 1915 that the term ‘shell shock’ first appeared in print, in the Lancet. It was originally intended to describe a physical condition in which the brain had been damaged by the percussive effects of high explosives, but was subsequently adopted to describe many different forms of battle trauma.

Unsurprisingly, the incidence of shell shock rose dramatically during the battle of the Somme. According to the Official History of the Medical Services, 16,138 battle casualties suffered in France between July and December 1916 were ascribed to shell shock. Taylor Downing suggests that this was a serious underestimate of the true figures, but even so it was over four times the number of similar casualties in the previous six months and ten times more than those in the same months in 1915. Military commanders feared that shell shock had become an ‘epidemic’, and were very suspicious of a condition that in their opinion was difficult to differentiate from sheer funk.

One way in which the army dealt with shell shock was to re-categorise it. Victims who had suffered from the explosive shock of a nearby shell were classed as ‘Shell Shock W’, which meant that they were a ‘real’ casualty, ‘wounded as a result of enemy action’; those deemed to be experiencing ‘some kind of hysterical response, a temporary breakdown of the nerves’, were classed as ‘Shell Shock S’ (for ‘Sick’), which meant that they did not figure in the casualty lists. A third category, ‘neurasthenia’, was largely reserved for officers and defined as ‘a prolonged process of breakdown’ resulting from ‘the extra responsibility they had to bear’.

In reality, although mild cases of shell shock could sometimes be effectively treated by taking men out of the line and giving them proper bed rest, there was often little to differentiate between either the causes or symptoms in these bureaucratic and face-saving categories. Wilfred Owen, for example, suffering from the shakes, confused memory and violent nightmares, was diagnosed with neurasthenia, but this was caused less by his responsibilities as an officer than by a succession of traumas — enduring days of uninterrupted shelling, being blown into the air and covered with earth by an exploding shell, and lying out in no man’s land beside the body of another soldier — that were among the most
commonly reported causes of shell shock in the ranks.

Many writers will be producing their Somme books for this year’s centenary, and although Downing has hit upon a new approach to a very familiar subject he is too much the military historian to pass up the opportunity of providing his own account of the planning, strategy, fighting and consequences of the famous battle. He does this well enough, but for long stretches of the book shell shock is mentioned only in passing. By far the best chapters are those dealing not with tactical decisions and their consequences but with the high command’s fear that shell shock would cause the entire army to fall apart.

This fear led to some disgraceful incidents, most notably the treatment of the 250 members of the (volunteer) Lonsdale Battalion who had survived ‘one of the worst massacres in the history of the British Army’ during the first day on the Somme. A week later some of these men, clearly suffering from battle trauma and diagnosed as ‘unfit’ by their highly respected medical officer, were nevertheless ordered to take part in a chaotic and ineffective bombing raid, during which several of them refused to go over the top. General Gough not only wanted the MO dismissed from the Royal Army Medical Corps for showing the men ‘undue sympathy’, but arranged for the Lonsdales to be publicly reprimanded and humiliated in front of all the other units in the brigade.

Similarly, although General Haig assured Parliament in 1918 that the death sentence was never carried out on men convicted of cowardice or desertion if they had been diagnosed with shell shock, he had personally overruled recommendations for clemency in at least two such cases on the grounds that ‘to commute the sentence would be to legitimise the condition’.

The suspicion and bureaucratic categorising of shell shock persisted after the war. Unlike the physically disabled, every soldier with shell shock had to be examined to determine whether this had been caused by the war or merely ‘aggravated’ by it, with pensions awarded accordingly. All in all, this is a sorry tale, from which only the victims of shell shock and those who tried to understand and treat it emerge with any credit.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £25 Tel: 08430 600033. Peter Parker is the author of The Last Veteran: Harry Patch and the Legacy of War, as well as biographies of J.R. Ackerley and Christopher Isherwood.

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  • What a vile series of errors this war was. I have a personal interest since my grandfather was shot through the chest and blown up on the Somme. He had also been gassed at some time. Amazingly he survived, or I wouldn’t be writing this.

    After being repatriated he spent many months in hospital and suffered from intransigent infection of the wound (osteomyelitis) for years. In the end, in pre-antibiotic days, this was dealt with by removing five of his ribs which were infected. Like most of his generation, he would never talk about his war experience and gave VERY short shrift to my teen-aged enquiry about whether he had killed any Germans. The look he gave me left me in no doubt that the conversation was over.

    I can well remember as a kid in the 195os seeing old, one legged men hobbling about. There was a chap up our street who sat in an incredible old bath chair with three wheels and peddled it around with a sort of bicycle crank using his hands. It looked like a tricycle with hand level pedals and a bath at the back in which the old gent sat. He steered with the hand cranks and they moved the front wheel with a cycle chain. These kinds of fellows were all over the place where we lived in Newcastle upon Tyne until about 1960 when they just melted away.

    • Patriots learn from “errors”. Marxists, however, use never-ending “errors” to create chaos, since out of chaos the Marxist position in the world grows stronger. The West had long been co-opted by Marxists before World War I.

      The purpose for the Marxist World War I operation was three fold:

      (1) create the first above board Marxist nation to spread the germ of Marxism to non-Western nations;*

      (2) destroy the confidence of the West’s citizens in the competency of their governments; thereby

      (3) destroying the image of Europe’s empires, and their mission to bring peace and trade to the world.
      * This worked out even better than Marxists had initially hoped for, because after World War II the Marxist Allies found out they could allow Easter Europe to remain under Soviet ‘protection’.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Arthur. Your grandad sounds like all those amazing old chaps from that brave/ blighted generation. I remember seeing many WW1 veterans in the late sixties and the seventies. Queit, dignified men. A lesson to us all.
      I remember as a child being scared when one oldboy heard a road drill. He mistook it for a machine gun, ran into our house and hid under the kitchen table.
      Another giant of a man, ex Coldstream guard, but who lived in a corrugated iron shack and rarely washed. On Remembrance day the vicar tried to stop him entering Church due to the smell. A retired Wing Commander pushed the vicar aside pinned a poppy on old tramp and they marched in ,in perfect time. Enough to make anyone weep.

      • Glad we can be as one on this Todd Unctuous. We have clashed many times, but not on this one. On 1s t July 1916, the Tyneside Irish and Tyneside Scottish ‘Pals battalions’ of the Northumberland Fusiliers, were marched with their SMLE rifles, bayonets fixed and a hand full of rounds in their pockets for more than a mile across open ground into withering machine gun fire from guns set up on the higher ridge they were sent to take. There were so many casualties in that attack the brigade was broken up and the remnant distributed among other regiments. My old grandfather was among them and VERY lucky to survive at all, since he lay with a major chest wound for a long time without attention.

        The war fighting methods of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, walking in line abreast towards the enemy among them, were entirely unsuited to modern weaponry, especially massed machine guns with endless supplies of ammunition. They were scythed down like weeds before a strimmer. There have been attempts of late to re-rehabilitate the reputation of the generals and commanders of that conflict, but I don’t think they are at all justified. They willingly sacrificed tens of thousands of their men with wanton disregard, in pursuit of pointless objectives. They didn’t even supply them with enough ammunition to fight other than with bayonets, knuckle dusters and trench clubs. If the private soldiers like my grandfather ever got to the German trenches they were obliged to batter and stab the enemy to death, because they certainly hadn’t enough ammunition to shoot them all. Medieval, I call it, yet it was thirty-six years before I was born.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          Agreed. A massive tragedy. As poignant and sad as thstvof the volunteers from Newfoundland. 92% of whom were killed for wounded on 1st July 1916.

          • g1

            50,000 Irish died in France and they were all volunteers.

  • Jingleballix

    The British Tommies were treated badly………especially when one realises that in spring, summer 1917 they had to pick up the slack following the large-scale mutinies by the French who simply refused to fight because they felt they were being sacrificed needlessly by their own callous generals.

    Anyway, rightly or wrongly, the British had to fill the French vacuum for quite a few months……..especially galling as the Americans began to arrive in May/June 1917 – but did precious little until the mid-autumn, as they preferred to ‘observe’ new methods of fighting.

    It wasn’t until summer 1918 – when their arrival in large numbers helped throw back the German offensive, their weight of numbers was what helped turned the war.

    The French took most of the casualties in 1914-15, but surely thereafter (save Verdun 1917) the Brits took the biggest pasting.

    German troops were also hard done by…….which is why the country descended into chaos 1918-20, as they felt that their efforts and sacrifices – no allied soldier set foot on German soil – had been undermined by German Marxists

    • Thanks for the Marxist interpretation of World War I. As usual, it explains nothing.

      Now why would French generals needlessly sacrifice their own soldiers? Hmm? Why would French generals allow German forces to remain on French territory for even one week, and not throw the relatively weak German presence out by OUTFLANKING the Germans. In fact the Allies, and Germans for that matter when they were present in large numbers in France, always failed to take advantage of breakthroughs by refusing to throw followup forces through the breakthrough hole and role up the opposition. This explains why the first Allied formation to breach German lines was an Indian regiment, because their British officers were either dead or wounded back in hospital, so naturally the sepoys didn’t know they weren’t supposed to breach German lines.

      It was critical to get Russia back into the war immediately with the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. So what do the Allies do when (1) Russia’s involvement in the war is critical for keeping German, Austrian and Turkish forces busy in the East; and (2) Russia’s involvement in the war is a key stratagem for Allied victory? The Allies do nothing! Not only do the Allies refuse to send a naval expeditionary force to overthrow the weak Bolsheviks in Petrograd, they sent the 60,000 strong Czechoslovak Legion on a 6,000 mile odyssey across Russia to Vladivostok for evacuation back to Europe instead of sending the formidable legion 700 miles north to Petrograd!

    • My reply was considered so dangerous by The Spectator that it was twice deleted. You can read the dangerous comments in my Disqus page…

    • Father Todd Unctious

      The French lost 1.4 million men or 5% of the adult population. Plus 4.2 million wounded.
      The British lost 820,000 plus 2 million wounded. We occupied only one tenth of the front line until 1916.
      The Yanks had little impact on WW1. The British rolled up the German front in August 1918.

  • #toryscum

    Is the common consensus now that shell shock = PTSD?

  • The Marxist Co-Option Of History And The Use Of The Scissors Strategy To Manipulate History Towards The Goal Of Marxist Liberation

    The refusal of the World War I Allied nations of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, France, Canada and the United States to overthrow the Bolshevik regime immediately after the 7 November 1917 coup in Petrograd1 shun a bright spotlight on not only the Marxist co-option of the Allies’ political establishments,2 but Marxist co-option of the Central Powers’ political establishments as well, since after the war those nations that constituted the Central Powers during the war failed after the war to alert the attention of the world to the Allies’ Marxist co-option, where the Allies protected the Bolshevik regime in Petrograd, even though Lenin’s war policy would remove Russia from the war, thereby strengthening the Central Powers against the Allies.

    The World War I Allies failure to mount a naval expeditionary force to overthrow the weak Bolsheviks in Petrograd and bring Russia back into the war, the Allies’ war strategy for victory dependent on Russia’s continued presence in the war, casts a glaring spotlight on the Marxist co-option of the West’s political establishments. In fact, there was a 60,000 man anti-Bolshevik force already in Russia (located outside Kiev) that on its own could have destroyed the Bolsheviks in Petrograd – the Czechoslovak Legion – but instead of sending the formidable legion 700 miles north to Petrograd, the Allies instead sent it on a 6,000 mile odyssey across Russia to Vladivostok for evacuation back to Europe!

    That being said, what does the Russian Army leadership (which is still headed by supposedly Russian Orthodox officers) do when it’s ordered to demobilize on November 23? The leadership obeys the Bolshevik order! In fact, between November 7 – 22, the Russian Army leadership did nothing to overturn the Bolshevik coup, even though Kerensky ordered them to!

    World War I is an obvious contrived war, where both sides for five years make monumental basic military errors. The race to the North Sea coast is one of the hilarious and obviously staged spectacles of World War I, where we see both sides intentionally prolonging the war. For the Allies, the obvious solution at the beginning of the war for a quick victory is to not follow the German lines, but to outflank and destroy the Germans, and since it was the Germans who had to move men and arms into France, the Germans were always at a strategic disadvantage being so far away from their source of combatants, armaments and other supplies.

    We are left to ponder the following questions:

    (1) How did the Bolshevik Central Committee know that the Allies wouldn’t send a naval expeditionary force to overthrow the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, thereby returning Russia to the war?

    (2) How did the Bolshevik Central Committee know that the Allies would send the Czechoslovak Legion 6,000 miles across Russia to Vladivostok instead of sending the legion 700 miles north to Petrograd to topple the Bolshevik coup?

    (3) How did the Bolshevik Central Committee know that the leadership of the Russian Army – which was still entirely made up of aristocratic, Russian Orthodox, officers – would obey Bolshevik orders and (1) not topple the Bolshevik coup; and (2) obey the order to demobilize the Russian Army?

    The Bolshevik coup in Petrograd would never have taken place unless the Bolshevik Central Committee was assured those three questions were taken care of.

    World War I was a Marxist operation creating false oppositions for the purpose of causing chaos, where out of the ashes of chaos the Marxist global position would be stronger. The official term Marxists give to this false opposition tactic is the Scissors Strategy,3 in which the blades represent the two falsely opposed sides that converge on the confused victims, simultaneously neutralizing true opposition while advancing the Marxist agenda.

    As soon as the World War I operation had ended, Marxists began planing for the World War II operation with the creation of that war’s two false opposition fronts, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and the National Fascist Party in Italy. Benito Mussolini was a well known and influential Marxist before the Comintern ordered that he take up a new identity as leader of the National Fascist Party. As for Adolf Hitler’s Marxist pedigree, one-third of Hitler’s SA, and later Gestapo personnel, were ‘former’ Marxists.4

    During the course of World War II Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of the Abwehr (German military intelligence), and General Reinhard Gehlen, Chief of the German General Staff’s intelligence unit for the Soviet Union and East European countries,Foreign Armies East (FHO), independently discovered that a group supervised by Deputy Führer Martin Bormann,5 second in command of Germany, was transmitting unsupervised coded radio messages to Moscow.


    World War I is an obvious contrived war, where both sides for five years make monumental basic military errors. The race to the North Sea coast is one of the hilarious and obviously staged spectacles of World War I, where we see both sides intentionally prolonging the war. For the Allies, the obvious solution at the beginning of the war for a quick victory is to not follow the German lines, but to outflank and destroy the Germans, and since it was the Germans who had to move men and arms into France, the Germans were always at a strategic disadvantage being so far away from their source of combatants, armaments and other supplies.

    • Jingleballix

      This is a piece (and similarly the comments) about the mental trauma of WWI soldiers.

      It is not a forum for obscure – outlandish even – military theory.

      • The mental trauma of World War I combatants was the product of the Marxist World War I operation. It is fact that the Allies refused to overthrow the Bolsheviks in Moscow, and a fact that the Allies sent the Czechoslovak Legion 6,000 mills across Russia to Vladivostok for evacuation instead of sending the 60,000 strong formation 700 miles north to overthrow the weak Bolsheviks. it is a fact that the leadership of the Russian Army – still commanded by aristocratic Orthodox officers – refused to overthrow the Bolsheviks in Petrograd(!), and then on November 23 obediently obeyed Trotsky’s order to demobilize the Russian Army! These are proofs of the Marxist co-option of the Allies’ political/military establishments, not theories!

        Your inability to comprehend the above facts is indicative of a limited cognitive ability on your part.