Breakdown: the crisis of shell shock on the Somme, 1916. By Taylor Downing.

In Breakdown Downing attempts to unpack the obfuscation surrounding the syndrome named shell shock in 1916 and post traumatic stress disorder in 2016. 

THERE have always been problems establishing the parity of mental health and physical health. Even today there is a stigma over admitting to any kind of depression or emotional instability.

This is even more extreme in military circles for reasons which are comprehensible if not admirable. Soldiers are trained to function in dangerous circumstances. Solders must stand together and work for their pals as well as ‘King and Country’. They can’t be whining that they are frightened. Or staring into space, eyes bulging from sockets.

Clearly if someone’s leg is blown off they must be returned home. No one can pretend that their leg has gone. But if a mind is frazzled – ah there now – it could be pretence, it could be cowardice.

Military commanders at all levels are tasked to maintain morale.  Personnel with twitches, with muteness, with staring eyes are not helpful. Various approaches to addressing these behaviours were taken.

Pathe news: The Daily Mail

Some officers tried shouting very loudly. Some medical men tried shocking frontal lobes with electricity. Max Kaufman, in Mannheim, tried shocking and shouting both at once. Others merely shot victims as cowards. Shell shock can be a terrible worry during times of war.

Taylor Downing’s book takes as its starting point the Battle of the Somme. He compares incidences of ‘shell shock’ in the British Army before and during the prolonged battle which lasted from July to November 1916. Using materials from military and medical archives Downing attempts to link the particularly bloody and extended battle with a peak in mental breakdowns. His task is nearly impossible due to the fact that the syndrome he is studying is not cut and dried in the way that, for example, facial burn injuries can be documented.


The prologue offers some startling accounts of shell shock in the thick of combat in Delville Wood during the third week of July 1916. Downing quotes at length from a report written by Brigadier Reginald John Kentish on 3rd August. Kentish’s prose is fragmented and ‘convoluted’ almost as if it had been affected by the chaos of battle. So Downing summarises stating that ‘prolonged exposure to intense fire was a major contributory factor … and although it affected individuals one by one, it was also contagious and could spread among an entire unit.’ The idea of shell shock being infectious terrified military leaders. How could they stop the ‘wastage’?

Medical Officers were reporting all sorts of symptoms:

Pathe News: The Daily Mail

Most were suffering from peculiar forms of paralysis. Many were described as having ‘the shakes’. Some could not stand up or walk normally. A few did not appear able to speak coherently and were stammering badly. Others had been struck completely dumb and could not speak at all. Most appeared to be in a state of stupor and a few had completely lost their memory. Others seemed to find it difficult to see clearly. Many had lost their sense of taste or smell. Some vomited repeatedly.

The epidemic of shell shock was a new phenomenon. Quite quickly it was realised that it was partly to do with the passivity of immobile warfare. The noise of gunfire was incessant; sometimes the shells would land in the trenches. Soldiers could do nothing to protect themselves, could take no action. They just had to hope that they would not be hit. Meanwhile friends and comrades were hit and sometimes turned to red mist, or a decapitated head or a legless torso. It is unsurprising that many had breakdowns.

The trickle of shell shocked men returning from the lines became a tumult. If it were to continue to increase it would be impossible to fight the war. But it was hard to diagnose and no easy treatments were available. Opinion was divided between those who wanted to shout at the victims and force them back to their regiments and those who felt that some rest and therapy might help them recover. Additionally who could distinguish between genuine sufferers and malingerers?

By the beginning of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916 the army had identified two types of shell shock. W stood for wounded and S stood for sick. If a soldier’s brain suffered ‘commotional’ damage due to being close to an exploding shell he was W but if, after a period of time under constant pressure, he collapsed then he was S. There was only a small percentage, of Ws compared with Ss. There was also a category used mainly for officers: N for neurasthenia. In greater than proportionate numbers the Ns accompanied the non-commissioned Ws and Ss back across the channel.

Downing notes that official records show ‘that there were 16,138 battle casualties in France from shell shock in the months July to December 1916, over four times more than in the previous six months; and more than ten times greater than in the six months from July to December in 1915’. These figures only included the Ws and Downing thinks that the total figure is more likely to be around 53-63,000.

Medical opinion was veering towards the idea that shell shocked soldiers should not return to England. It was thought better that they be treated in field hospitals as near to the battlefields as possible, although out of hearing of the barrages. The men were to be kept under military discipline. The idea was that after as short a period of rest as possible the recovered patient could, having been given a stern telling off, be sent back to the front.

Image: Paul Grover for the Telegraph.

Downing gives details of men whose nervous state prevented them from conducting themselves well under fire. Some had already been treated for shell shock and then sent back to the trenches. They were usually court martialled and shot as cowards. There would be no pensions for their widows. The records were held secret for 75 years. In 2001 a memorial showing a blindfolded soldier facing a firing squad was erected in Staffordshire and in 2006 a posthumous pardon was given for all executed soldiers (306). It is not clear how many of those shot were shell shock survivors.

In an appendix Downing attempts to give some numerical assessment of the problem. He thinks that about 17% of ‘injuries’ in the Battle of the Somme were mental stress rather than wounds and that about 4% of all soldiers suffered from non-physical trauma.

Readers of Downing’s book may be familiar with the ‘pity’ of war from poets such as Sassoon and Owen; they may be familiar with the ‘treatment’ of ‘shell-shock’ from Pat Barker’s 1990s Regeneration trilogy but here Downing offers an analysis which, by chronicling the military and medical responses to post traumatic stress disorder, reinforces the idea that mental illness is as injurious as physical wounds. Downing obviously found some of what he discovered debilitating and in his acknowledgments he thanks his wife Anne for cheering him up. The book is an essential addition to the history of the First World War. What is depressing, however, is that for similar reasons, military institutions still find it difficult to care for those who mental illness is caused, to a great extent, by battlefield action.

Works cited

Barker, Pat. Regeneration Trilogy.

Downing, T. Breakdown: The crisis of shell shock on the Somme, 1916. Abacus. 2017.

NO doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Siegfried Sassoon: Craiglockart. October, 1917.

An earlier version of this review appeared in the Irish Examiner on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend Section. 11th March 2017.


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I am a Londoner living in the centre of Cork City and studying for an MA in Irish Writing and Film at University College Cork. Even though I have lived more of my life in London than elsewhere, and even though I love London with an indescribable passion, I am falling in love with Cork as well. It is such a cornucopia of Irish culture; scarcely a week goes by without something interesting happening. That is why this blog is called Corkucopia. I want to celebrate the city as well as Irish Writing and Film and, indeed, Irishness itself.

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