Moral Crossroads of World War I: Examining Shell Shock In Both Literature and News

Caitlin Bean


Today, soldiers returning from war with severe nervous deterioration are labeled as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. While much remains unknown about PTSD, the symptoms of this disorder have been familiar to society since the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  Soldiers returning from the front with seemingly mental difficulty were labeled with what was then known as “shell shock.”  In Rebecca West’s novella, The Return of the Soldier (1918), Captain Chris Baldry is sent home from the front with amnesia, unable to remember the past fifteen years after a shell explodes near him on the battlefield.  The doctors and his family members are unable to make sense of this persistent lack of memory, at times wondering if Chris is feigning amnesia to stay at home away from battle.

By questioning how society of the early 1900s viewed those afflicted with shell shock and how those views affected families’ and soldiers’ opinions about national and individual responsibilities in the wartime effort, society today may hope to be able to understand current thoughts, confusions, and treatments of PTSD.  Between the years of 1914 and 1940 newspapers such as The Times of London, The Washington Post, and The New York Times overflowed with society’s panic concerning shell shock.  Month after month, reports appeared in the news about soldiers cured of their afflictions by sudden loud noises or retirement in the country as the best treatment for a “nervous” soldier.  West accurately portrays the confusion, frustration, and ethical dilemmas involved in helping a soldier recover from shell shock as Chris’s family tries to cope with his lack of memory and the fear of his return to the front. The comparison between real newspaper articles of the time and the evidence West provides in her literature shows that even when the war is won on the front, there is no resolution among soldiers and society; shell shock is still an enigma waiting to be solved.


Word War I; Shell Shock; Literature

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