Shellitis and shell-shock: language and the psychological side-effects of war.

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, as the relevant article (based on a soldier’s letter from the Front) had, with some prescience, suggested:

‘It’s the quantity, not the quality of the German shells that is having effect on us, and it’s not so much the actual damage to life as the nerve-wracking row that counts for so much’ (Evening News, 4 September 1914).

Deemed ‘proper nerve-wrackers’ (here in another form unrecorded in the OED), shells were, by extension, recognised as highly specific agents of psychological destruction.

Under a heavy shell fire the noise and concussion are beyond description. The small shells are proper nerve-wrackers, skimming the parapet with a deadly swish, the explosion following immediately and sometimes right overhead (Scotsman, 4 September 1915)

Other aspects of both words and meaning in this respect are equally interesting. Shellitis is, for instance, another form which appears relatively early in the Words in War-Time archive. An article headed ‘In the Road of Death. Vivid Battle Stories told by a London Territorial’ appeared, for example, in the Daily Express in June 1915. This, in reality, was another ‘Letter from the Front’ in what the Daily Express describes as a ‘simply written but extraordinarily vivid account. As the soldier in question records:

One night I had to take my chum —- down to the dressing-station, as he had a bad chill and a touch of “shellitis.’”.

As the inverted commas indicate, shellitis was another neologism of war, fusing shell (which, as the Words in War-Time archive confirms, combined a sense of extraordinary destructiveness which a striking lexical productivity) with the suffix –itis. The meaning which results is, however, by no means simple, especially in connotative terms. Itis as suffix had, in recent years, revealed marked productivity. Usage, however, clearly fell into two categories. As for words such as bronchitis, gastritis or peritonitis, the suffix signals the presence of inflammation and disease. Conversely, as the OED explained, -itis could also appear in marking ‘trivial’ complaints which ‘are applied to a state of mind or tendency fancifully regarded as a disease’. Examples in the OED include suffragitis –a condition apparently suffered by MPS in 1906 as women attempted to get the vote, and ‘testitis’ (used in the context of cricket in 1912).**

As its form confirms, it is under the latter category that shellitis was intentionally to be understood. Unlike, say, appendicitis where inflammation is experienced by the appendix, in shellitis the condition it suggests is experienced not by the shell (which cannot, at least medically, be inflamed) but by the combatant. The location of suffering is transferred, as the cited extract from the Daily Express above illustrates. More to the point, however, is the further set of connotations which are thereby generated. These clearly work within the wider discourse of legitimization of illness of this kind. If shellitis is an ailment, the underlying meaning is, as a result, relegated to the OED’s category of the ‘trivial’ and, by extension, trivialising — and to ‘a state of mind … fancifully regarded as a disease’. In these terms, the diction of shellitis can both record the psychological effects that war could bring, but also serve to undermine the seriousness of what is experienced. Like the modern ‘Monday-morningitis’, it is, inferentially, a condition which securing the right mind-set will be able to overcome. Shell-fever (another form unrecorded in the OED) works in similar ways in the evidence of the archive – a temporary disorder which (unlike real fever), a stiff upper lip should quickly set to rights.

‘The youngest soldiers in the firing line, says a correspondent, have got over “shell fever” and enjoy their meals in the trenches even under the hottest fire’ (Evening News 9 October 1914):

Nerve fatigue, as yet another form which intervenes in this increasingly crowded area, is, however, rather different. Likewise absent from the OED, it reflects attempts to explain injuries which could not be accounted for by the direct impact of shells and bullets, or the presence of physical wounds. As the Evening News noted on Saturday 3 April, 1915, for instance

The fact that the mere bursting of a shell can in rare instances affect men whom it does not actually hit with such gross physical upsets as sudden blindness, complete loss of memory, etc., suggested that lesser and not so easily noticeable nervous injuries must be fairly common.

Once general attention was focussed on the subject, it was speedily found that scores of men, both in the ranks and among the officers, while apparently fine to the outward eye – that is, of normal weight, good colour, etc. – were nevertheless suffering in a marked degree from what can best be described as “nerve fatigue”.

Here, too, inverted commas are prominent, signalling newness and the advent of unfamiliar terminology – and the continued need for language (and the lexicon) to accommodate the changing effects of war. As the article continued:

In this hitherto little studied condition (little studied because doctors have never had the opportunity to observe closely large bodies of men labouring under a tremendous and continued nervous strain), the nervous system, as a result of continuous over-use, although showing no gross disturbance, begins to lose its normal power to send messages quickly and efficiently from the brain to the muscles.

The condition was, as it confirmed, becoming distressingly widespread ( ‘In ordinary life the condition of nerve fatigue is practically never met with except in person who lead a sedentary life’). Nine months into the war, assumptions about the nature of injury were being widely reassessed. Psychological warfare, recorded in the OED from 1939, is, in the Words in War-Time archive, already all too clear. Demonstrating the value of the collections which are made, both psychological damage and psychological warfare are in the archive from October 1914.***

We might, however, note the OED’s own changes of stance, and detail, on illness of this kind. Shell-shock, unrecorded during the war itself (the relevant fascicle of the dictionary had been published in March 1914), was, in fact, first added in the Supplement of 1933, being defined as ‘a nervous disorder prevalent during the war of 1914-18, resulting from exposure to shell-explosion at close quarters’. Revised in 1986, for the new four-volume Supplement, it was redefined as ‘a name given, esp. during the war of 1914-18, to certain psychological disturbances occurring in conditions of active warfare and supposed to result primarily from exposure to shell-fire’. Here, too, issues of legitimization, and delegitimization, can apparently appear. Shell-shock in 1986 is, at least inferentially, not entirely convincing: it is now ‘a name given’ to a set of symptoms, not ‘a nervous disorder’ per se as it had been in 1933; the causative effect of shell-fire is also placed in doubt by the insertion of ‘supposed to’. Recent revision, dated to June 1914, has, conversely changed this position once more. Shell-shock is once again defined as ‘A disorder’ which was ‘identified in soldiers in the First World War (1914–18). The epistemic distancing of ‘supposed’ has also been removed: shell-shock, it notes, is ‘attributed to exposure to shell-fire and characterized by severe anxiety and other psychological disturbances, often accompanied by somatic symptoms such as rapid heartbeat and nervous tics’.***

** See -itis, suffix. OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 20 March 2015.

*** Psychological damage is still absent from the OED.


© Lynda Mugglestone, 20 March 2015.





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