Psychiatry virtually didn’t exist as a medical speciality before WWI, but the terrible emotional shocks that soldiers suffered on the battlefields allowed this science to evolve at a great speed and help many men and women.
Before the Great War, anxiety had manifested in many Western societies. It created an entirely new sociomedical discourse around neurasthenia and hysteria. Throughout the 1800s, when psychology started to emerge, these conditions were linked to a hereditary weakness or mental defect more than to an external cause.
When WWI broke out, this was still the general understanding.
The military scarcely knew – or cared – for psychology. For many army officials, everything went down to bravery or cowardice, which were, of course, personal traits. Yet, many doctors saw the terrible pain shell shock caused, and many turned to psychology to understand it and find a cure.
The term itself – Shell Shock – was used the first time by Charles Myers in the medical journal ‘The Lancet‘ in 1915. At the time, neurologists – supposedly the medical specialists in this fields – were at a loss in explaining what exactly this condition of extreme distress was. Why it manifested in shaking, mutism, blindness, contortions and extreme fear, and where it came from, though doctors in asylums – which is where initially shell shock patients were treated – still clung to the Victorian idea of inherited hysteria.
As shell shock became ever more common, doctors could no longer afford to give psychiatry so little attention or credibility. Neurologists began to see the importance of psychological analysis and slowly transitioned to practising psychiatry. Thanks to these doctors’ work during WWI, the military and society at large, started to acknowledge that the industrial war could indeed injure the mind of people as well as their body.Psychology (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) Psychiatry virtually didn't exist as a medical speciality before WWI, but the terrible emotional shocks that soldiers suffered on the battlefields allowed this science to evolve at a… Click To Tweet
The Great War is, more than any other wars, the war of fear. Fear is the overwhelming emotion that permeates the entire experience of soldiers in the trenches. It’s what caused most of the emotional and psychological damage, though, for a long time, it was denied by the army, society at large and by the soldiers themselves.
The emotion of fear rarely emerges in letters and diaries of soldiers involved in conflicts before the mid-1800s. When it does appear, it’s in association with notions of chivalry, and most definitely, it came from the outside.
The open battlefield of the Napoleonic Wars, for example, forced soldiers to one-by-one combat, where the notion of personal heroic deed and honour was still applicable, and fear was, therefore, more easily controlled by notions of courage, bravery, patriotism.
Things changed over the 19th century because warfare changed dramatically.
In the fields of WWI, the one-by-one combat disappeared. Battalions threw themselves against faceless enemies into the carnage that was entirely uncontrollable and therefore caused uncontrollable fear. The very source of danger was difficult to locate. The soldiers of the enemy army almost disappeared. Soldiers found themselves fighting against the artillery barrage, the incessant machine-gun fire, the treacherous barbed wire. Predicting where a shell would hit was practically impossible, therefore soldiers didn’t know how to protect themselves and how to prevent an explosion. A soldier on the ground could control nothing while in action, which made them feel vulnerable and exposed, devoid of any ability to protect themselves.
In the second half of the 19th century, then, military psychiatry started to form, together with a medical discourse of trauma, which would allow the concept of shell shock to emerge during WWI.
Yet, fear was rarely called that in all accounts of WWI. The rhetoric of bravery was still very strong, and the older leaders that had fought in the wars of the previous century were inclined to define fear as cowardice.
The concept of masculinity was also very present, which explains why censorship was so strong also on a personal level. Soldiers describe fear in many ways in their letters and their diaries but never call it that. They described the sound, the feel and the taste of it, but they didn’t give it that name. Because giving fear its name meant they were cowards, they weren’t acting manly, and they could not allow themselves to think that. The fear to show fear in front of one’s comrades was probably one of the cruellest experiences in the trenches.
Enzo Travero, A ferro e fuoco. La guerra civile europea (1914-1945), Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008
The Psychology of Killing: The Combat – Experience of British Soldiers during the First World War by Edgar Jones (pdf)
Self-deception and Survival: Mental Coping Strategies on the Western Front, 1914-18 by Alex Watson (pdf)
International Encyclopedia of the First War World – Fear
Royal College of Physicians – ‘The petrification of terror’: psychology and the First World War
Advances in the History of Psychology – Tag Archives: World War I
The Psychologist – Psychology and the Great War, 1914–1918
Smithsonian Megazine – The first personality test was developed during WWI