In February 1915, Captain Charles Myers published what he termed ‘A contribution to the Study of Shell-Shock’ in the medical journal the Lancet. Presenting three detailed case histories, he concluded that, rather than ‘hysteria’, such cases ‘constitute a definite class among others arising from the effects of shell-shock’. Such studies were important in the legitimization of the psychological side-effects of war. Hysteria, as Myers was well aware, was a label which, unlike shell-shock, had widely served to undermine the seriousness (and validity) of what was being experienced by those who, traumatized, returned from war. Language, here and elsewhere, intersected with real-world history, documenting not only events but how events (and illness) were to be understood.
As earlier posts have explored, WW1 had, from the beginning, generated a wide-ranging vocabulary of nerves and nerviness. Long before the formal currency of shell-shock, the diction of to shatter the nerves was widely prevalent. It was an expression which was ‘in constant use’, together with related forms during 1914-15, as Andrew Clark observed, here alongside an entry in the archive from the Daily Express which focussed attention on the psychological stress of war:
The effect on the nerves is terrible, and I suppose it is intended to shatter the nerves of our men. Only the strongest can stand it for long, and most of us found it best to stuff our ears with cotton wool or tear up our handkerchiefs for the same purpose’ (Daily Express, September 2nd 1914)
Nerve-wracking as a distinctive property of the instruments of modern warfare, was picked up two days later in the Evening News. Both injury and attack could take many forms, Continue reading