Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Male Hysteria: From Shell-Shock to Combat Exhaustion

Shell-shock emerged as a major logistical and medical challenge during the First World War, upturning the idea that hysteria was predominantly a female disorder and challenging notions of masculinity, honour and bravery. This week’s seminar will focus on the debate surrounding recognition of the disorder during the war years and also its longer term impact on psychiatric practice, as well as differences in the way the condition was conceptualised (and even labelled) and treatment between soldiers and the officer class.The Second World War was marked by anticipation of widespread mental breakdown amongst the troops and more constructive responses, and we will consider how this marked and indeed produced shifts in attitudes towards mental breakdown more generally. Finally, we will consider Elaine Showalter’s controversial book, Hystories, and I will ask one of you to comment on this, and consider how our readings on shell-shock to combat exhaustion might help shape our understanding of current debates about post-traumatic stress. Before the seminar I will direct you to a selection of film clips relating to shell-shock.
Shell Shock, from The Fourth: The Magazine of the 4th London General Hospital (1917)
  1. Why was shell-shock so shocking?
  2. How did medical, military and social responses to shell-shock evolve during and in the aftermath of the First World War?
  3. How did reactions to shell-shock influence psychiatric practice more generally?
  4. What’s in a name? What were the implications of the emergence of the term ‘combat exhaustion’?
** Tracey Loughran, ‘Shell-Shock and Pyschological Medicine in First World War Britain’, Social History of Medicine, 22 (2009), 79-95. e-journal
** Peter Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (Yale University Press, 2004). Several copies in library
** Ben Shephard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914-1994 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000). Multiple copies in library
** Hans Binneveld, From Shellshock to Combat Stress: A Comparative History of Military Psychiatry (Amsterdam University Press, 1997), esp. chs. VI and VII ‘From Shell Shock to Combat Stress’ and ‘Therapy in Wartime’, ch. VI. Multiple copies in library
** Journal of Contemporary History, Shell-Shock Issue, edited by Jay Winter, 35 (no. 1) (January, 2000) (excellent collection of articles). e-journal
** Joanna Bourke, ‘Disciplining the Emotions: Fear, Psychiatry and the Second World War’, in R. Cooter, M. Harrison and S. Sturdy (eds), War, Medicine and Modernity (Stroud: Sutton, 1998), pp. 225-38. Available via Talis Aspire
** Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997).Multiple copies in library
** Ted Bogacz, ‘War Neurosis and Cultural Change in England, 1914-22: The Work of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into “Shell-Shock”’, Journal of Contemporary History, 24 (1989), 227-56. e-journal
* Martin Stone, ‘Shellshock and the Psychologists’, Anatomy of Madness II, pp. 242-71.
* Harold Merskey, ‘Shell-Shock’, in 150 Years of British Psychiatry, pp. 245-67.
* Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion, 1996), pp. 107-23. Mulitple copies in libary
Wendy Holden, Shell Shock (London: Channel 4 Books, 1998).
** Julie M. Powell, 'Shock Troupe: Medical Film and the Performance of "Shell Shock" for the British Nation at War', Social History of Medicine, 30 (2017), 323-45. e-journal
Fiona Reid, Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-30 (London: Continuum, 2010). e-book
* Paul Lerner, Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930 (Cornell University Press, 2003).
* Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner (eds), Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1930 (Cambridge University Press, 2001) (includes useful essays on shellshock in various national contexts). e-book
Eric T. Dean, Shook over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 1997).
Eric T. Dean, ‘War and Psychiatry: Examining the Diffusion Theory in the Light of the Insanity Defence in Post-World War I Britain’, History of Psychiatry, 4 (1993), 61-82. e-journal
Harold Merskey, ‘After Shell-Shock: Aspects of Hysteria since 1922’, in 150 Years of British Psychiatry II, pp. 89-118.
* Elizabeth Roberts-Pederson, 'The Hard School: Physical Treatments for War Neurosis in Britain during the Second World War', Social History of Medicine, 29 (2016), 611-32. e-journal
* Ben Shephard, ‘“Pitiless Psychology”: The Role of Prevention in British Military Psychiatry in the Second World War’, History of Psychiatry, 10 (1999), 491-524. e-journal
Anthony Babington, Shell-Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neurosis (London: Leo Cooper, 1997). e-book
* Pat Barker, Regeneration (Penguin, 1991). (A copy of the film is in Short loan collection)