Not long after the fighting started, soldiers began showing symptoms of a strange new affliction. They became disoriented and confused. They developed tremors, limping, and paralysis that had no physical cause. At first, commands assumed that the men were trying to escape the fighting, and many were charged with cowardice or malingering and punished. Some were executed. As the number of afflicted increased, however, people realized that the disorder, coined “shellshock,” was a serious ailment.
Initial treatments for shellshock were physical, with the mild ones including rest, dietary changes, and massage. Some sufferers were also subjected to electroshock therapy and doused in ice water. The goal was to recuperate the soldiers enough to return them to the battlefield. Since the ailment was so widespread, there were soon entire hospitals devoted to shellshock.
Dr. John Brock of Craiglockhart War hospital Britain was one of the first to include occupational therapy in treatment for shellshock. He thought that giving men meaningful work to do would bring back their feelings of self-worth. This initiative resulted in soldiers weaving baskets, working in fields, and sewing boots, among other pursuits. Lady Clementine of the Lennel Auxilary Hospital encouraged her charges to paint, while the patients of Major Arthur Hurst of Netley Hospital established a newsletter. Recovering soldiers from the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa contributed to an embroidered alter piece that is currently being displayed at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Today, we call shellshock Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Fortunately, we have a better understanding of the disorder than our predecessors, who were flummoxed at the idea of battle injuries sustained not on soldiers’ bodies, but in their minds.