The psychiatric field of Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a relatively new one. The term dates as far back as 1980s, and its predecessor, “gross stress reaction,” was coined in 1952. However, the term “shell shock” is an older one, and made its mark in the minds of the public during the first world war.

W. H. R. Rivers | Wikimedia Commons

On December 4, 1917, a psychiatrist by the name of W. H. R. Rivers published “The Repression of War Experience.” It does not actually use the words shell shock, but it was a ground breaking report in regards to the psychological toll that intense war could have on a person, and how that can in turn affect a person physically.

Rivers had a heart for soldiers—he had tried to enlist as a young man and was devastated when he couldn’t due to a history of typhoid. It is difficult to imagine the difficulties of seeing this quite apparent in so many soldiers throughout WWI, and then suffer through ridicule and skepticism when presenting that evidence. The British were particularly conflicted in their acceptance of shell shock as a diagnosis, and some were even tried for cowardice if it affected their military work. The Viscount Gort, a ranking, highly decorated officer in the British Army, said that you wouldn’t find shell shock in “good” units, and that it was a sign of weakness. Despite this friction with the powers that be, Rivers continued to press the issue and gave conclusive evidence in his report, where he outlines the varying examples of shell shock and how it can manifest in different ways.

Here is an excerpt from the report: