«I saw robust and strong men, trembling, grimacing like madmen, victims of a silent and uncontrollable terror.»
This is how the journalist Philip Gibbs described 100 years ago the effect that modern warfare had on the soldiers of the Western Front during the First World War.
The troops showed these disturbing symptoms in September 1914, barely a month after the conflict began.
Youngsters who had until recently been healthy and showed no signs of external injury were losing their sense of smell, sight, and taste.
Some could not stop shaking and others could not speak.
Many were haunted by nightmares or reliving what had happened on the battlefield over and over again when awake.
At that time, mental health was a very little-known branch of medicine.
For some army generals it was nothing more than «nonsense and sheer cowardice».
But what happened in that war would end up revolutionizing the understanding of mental health.
the lunatic legacy
Mental health problems have been misunderstood throughout history.
In the Middle Ages, European Christians believed it was proof that someone had been possessed by demons.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, communities took care of those who chose to be «mad».
But at the beginning of the 19th century, the authorities declared that «lunatics» could be cured in asylums and «idiots» could learn.
The truth is that patients who ended up in the hospital rarely came out again and some received dangerous treatments, such as the removal of parts of their brains.
In the Victorian era, almost all doctors considered women more fragile and susceptible to nervous diseases.
The classic «feminine evil» was hysteria, which also affected «feminine men.»
For unmarried hysterical women, the remedy was to find a husband.
The soldier’s heart
In the 19th century it was still believed that trauma caused only physical injuries.
In conflicts like the American Civil War, those who suffered from chest pains and shortness of breath were diagnosed with «soldier’s heart.»
Military officers blamed the tight uniforms for the condition.
A few decades later, the soldiers who served in World War I suffered one of the most terrifying war experiences in history.
Daily they faced death and maiming caused by exploding bombs, machine gun bullets or the silent but deadly poison gas.
When the soldiers came out showing symptoms of what was called «shell shock» or «shell shock», it was assumed that the explosions had caused invisible damage to their nervous systems.
lack of comprehension
However, many military commanders believe that shell shock was fabricated, exaggerated, or simply cowardly.
It is very likely that some of the soldiers who were executed for deserting were traumatized.
But the cases piled up.
People reacted by writing to the newspapers about their sick relatives and taking the issue to the government.
Doctors and commanders alike will be left wondering if perhaps lack of sleep, the deafening noise, and the spectacle of too much death and maiming could be causing the symptoms.
The big change
Between April 1915 and April 1916, in the United Kingdom, more than 11,000 men received treatment for shell shock in British hospitals.
At first, it was believed that it could be cured with rest, sedatives, and electric shocks.
Later, some doctors thought that this treatment focused too much on the body and not enough on the mind, so inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis, they emerged to encourage soldiers to talk about their experiences.
By the end of the war, 80,000 British officers and soldiers suffered from «severe mental handicap which rendered the individual temporarily incapable of further service.»
Three years later, 65,000 were still receiving government aid for suffering from shell shock.
World War I proved that anyone can suffer from mental illness, no matter what their background, gender, or «moral character.»
A century later, we know that the term «shell shock» encompassed a range of conditions, from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.