History on film: shell shock in the First World War

Fiona Reid considers what newsreel footage tells us about reactions to shell shock during and after the First World War...

This article first appeared in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

Shell shock was not a new problem during the First World War but what was new was the scale of the problem. Men in the vast industrial armies of the early 20th century suffered prolonged exposure to noise, fear and bombardment, all made worse by the static nature of trench warfare. As a result, unprecedented numbers of soldiers suffered from war neuroses, as did sailors, the new air corps and medical personnel. 
In Britain, soldiers with mental disorders were traditionally sent to D-Block in the military hospital at Netley. Arthur Hurst, a physician recently returned from the eastern Mediterranean, was working at Netley in 1916 when he concluded that the growing number of mentally wounded men would be better treated in a special hospital. Seale Hayne Agricultural College on the edge of Dartmoor was ideal: the buildings were spacious and – most importantly – it included a farm.

Hysterical complaints

The War Office requisitioned the college and Seale Hayne had 120 patients within the first three weeks.British Pathé’s newsreel footage gives us a glimpse into the world of wartime mental hospitals and a sense of the military-medical culture. The films contain disturbing images of thin, nervous, twitching men, all from the lower ranks. Under the gaze of the medical officer – and the viewer – they are categorised by their physical symptoms: ‘Wire spring gait’, ‘Slippery ice gait’, ‘Battling with the wind’. 
These were hysterical complaints and most of the men at Seale Hayne were suffering from hysterical conditions such as deafness, mutism, blindness or paralysis. Doctors from all combatant nations struggled to deal with these disorders and military leaders were anxious about wastage and morale. Clips of Privates King and Sandall indicate that symptoms could become worse as vulnerable men imitated each other. Most experts agreed that shell shock was contagious.   
These films were made to reassure the public that men were being properly treated, and were getting better. At times they seem to present almost miraculous cures: after a mere 30 minutes, Private Richards threw down his stick and walked. We can query whether the men were ‘cured’, as many suffered recurring symptoms for their entire lives. Yet their stories tell us about the perceived nature of shell shock at the time. 
By 1916, military-medical elites accepted that psychological collapse was a genuine battle injury and that good men could succumb to it. Such men required treatment, not punishment, and if properly treated they would recover rapidly. Men who did not recover were therefore not suffering simply from battle injuries but were predisposed to mental breakdown: they were ‘bad stock’. So these films were not merely reassuring the public about the effectiveness of army doctors, they were also reinforcing the point that the legitimately shell-shocked man was one who could make a speedy recovery.   
Hurst wanted the men to play an active part in their own rehabilitation. Clips of rehabilitating men show them herding cows, washing a pig and picking berries. They were engaged in meaningful, masculine work but the skills themselves were not overly significant in industrial Britain. What mattered was that shell-shocked men could be seen as sociable, harmonious and in control of their own bodies.
Fiona Reid is the author of Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914–30 (Continuum, 2011).