Shell Shock: The Racket and the Fear

‘Shell shock’ is associated in particular with the First World War. Stuart M. Archer recounts the often brutal treatment meted out to sufferers of the condition and looks at how use of the term fell into disrepute. 

In a railway station near Lyon, in the early morning of February 1st, 1918, staff found a man wandering alone. They assumed he had arrived on a hospital train bringing prisoners of war from Germany, but when they questioned him he could only mumble. He was wearing a French uniform without any unit tags and he had no money and no identity papers. Young, with a dark moustache, he was sick and bewildered. Doctors sent him to a mental hospital at Bron, on the outskirts of Lyon. When asked his name he muttered indistinctly something that sounded vaguely like ‘Anthelme Mangin’ and that became his name. 

Looked after for many years by a sympathetic doctor, he became a celebrity. The courts and the press constantly pursued his identity for he was one of the living inconnus or disparus. Doctors argued over the causes of his amnesia, some trying to deny that it was due to shell shock, for that would have made him eligible for compensation. Anthelme eventually starved to death in an asylum during the Vichy regime in 1942. Such were the rewards of shell shock and amnesia in France.

Shell shock has become one of the most common phrases used in the description of military experience in the First World War. The Southborough Committee of 1920 attempted to define it as: 

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