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A Case of shell shock

George Lee recounts a story of a Sergeant who after being caught in a salvo on patrol came back “absolutely useless” and unable to function. He talks about the men who, after realising his condition, concealed it from the commander – because even at that late stage of the war there was little sympathy for those suffering from shell shock.

Year:1918 (Recorded 1981)

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A Case of shell shock

George Lee recounts a story of a Sergeant who after being caught in a salvo on patrol came back “absolutely useless” and unable to function. He talks about the men who, after realising his condition, concealed it from the commander – because even at that late stage of the war there was little sympathy for those suffering from shell shock.


Year: 1918 (Recorded 1981)

Length: 1:17

Production Company: Radio New Zealand

Credits: Producer: Jack Perkins

Source: Radio New Zealand Collection, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Catalogue Reference: 21614 Spectrum 383/384, Career by the King's shilling


People: George Lee, Jack Perkins


Image Title: Photograph taken by Official War Photographer at an Australian Advanced Dressing Station near Ypres in 1917. The wounded soldier in the lower left of the photograph has the "thousand yard stare" indicative of shell-shock.

Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cc/Shellshock2.jpg


Shell shock was a term first coined during the First World War to describe symptoms displayed by many men who had been involved in the war. These symptoms included involuntary shivering, crying, intrusions of memory (flashbacks)[1], sleep abnormalities, extreme distress resulting from personal "triggers,"[2] refusal to eat or drink and general inability to function. The term ‘shell shock’ came from the initial belief that the symptoms were caused by physical damage as a result of being in close proximity to exploding shells.

Nowadays, post-traumatic stress disorder (of which shell shock is a type) is well recognised, but it was a new and poorly understood concept during the War. As George Lee says, there was little sympathy for those suffering from it, who were often suspected of malingering or cowardice. Most sufferers were given a few days’ recovery in a field hospital before being returned to the front line. In extreme cases, they were transferred to hospitals in the UK for long-term treatment. Famous war poet Wilfred Owen was one of these.

The effects of shell shock often stayed with sufferers for the rest of their lives.

[1] Stephen Joseph: ‘Is shell shock the same as PTSD?’ Psychology Today 20/11/2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-doesnt-kill-us/201111/is-shell-shock-the-same-ptsd

[2] ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ Doctors Lounge http://www.doctorslounge.com/psychiatry/diseases/post-traumatic_stress.htm