Shell shocked soldier in a trench during the Battle of Courcelette (France) in September 1916. His eyes express the madness of the war. The soldier looks like he has gone insane from what he has seen. In that moment in time everything he’s been raised to work within, the social constructs which 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 when you think that people didn’t smile for the pictures back then.
The circumstances of the First World War 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 percent of all casualties were miles away from the battlefield. The term “shell shock” was coined by the soldiers themselves. Symptoms included fatigue, tremor, confusion, nightmares and impaired sight and hearing, an inability to reason, hysterical paralysis, a dazed thousand-yard stare is also typical. 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 either 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.
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.
- The thousand-yard stare or two-thousand-yard stare is a phrase coined to describe the limp, blank, unfocused gaze of a battle-weary soldier, but the symptom it describes may also be found among victims of other types of trauma. A characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder, the despondent stare reflects dissociation from trauma. When recounting his arrival in Vietnam in 1965, then-Corporal Joe Houle said he saw no emotion in the eyes of his new squad: “The look in their eyes was like the life was sucked out of them”. Later learning that the term for their condition was the 1,000-yard stare, Houle said, “After I lost my first friend, I felt it was best to be detached”.