war neurosis


Understanding and Treatment of War Neurosis by the Canadian Army Medical Corps

The term “shell shock” or neurasthenia emerged because military doctors believed the symptoms were caused by injuries to the nervous system resulting from the explosion of nearby artillery shells. As the war progressed and cases of “shell shocked” soldiers rose, it became clear that this was not the case. Many patients had no combat experience, or had not been under direct fire at the time of injury. 

"It became evident that the shell explosions or other event which forms the immediate antecedent of the illness is only the spark [...] for which the mental stresses and strains of warfare have long prepared the ground."

Physical treatments like electric shock therapy to send soldiers back to the front as quickly as possible were favoured. In strictest terms, these harsher methods were more efficient in returning men to the trenches; they took less time and had immediate effects on physical symptoms, but it is not known how many patients relapsed once they were back in combat.

"Shell shock" was believed to happen when a soldier's mental strength ran out. Medical professionals thought it could be exhausted by stressful situations such as intense combat, artillery barrages, or prolonged time in the trenches. 

Views taken on Christmas Day, 1917
at Granville Special Hospital, Buxton
December 1917
Canadian War Museum
Item CWM 19930003-607

Opposing Views and Methods

W.H.R. Rivers

Portrait of William Halse Rivers Rivers By Maull & Fox, Date unknown. The Royal Society, Item IM/Maull/003835
A British psychologist, Rivers served as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Favouring a more humane approach to treatment, he developed a "talking cure" to help affected soldiers process their repressed memories of the war and overcome their condition.

clarence b. farrar

Portrait of Clarence B. Farrar. Clarence B. Farrar (Fonds 1260), University of Toronto Archives, Item B1999-0011-002P-01
The Chief Psychiatrist for the Department of Soldiers' Civil Re-establishment (Canada) between 1916 and 1923. He claimed that mental disorders, including "shell shock" were biological and hereditary, and the result of a weak mind.