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Electrified Coconuts: Gendered Explanations of Wartime Suffering

            In many ways the First World War featured the combined forces of industrialization, capitalism and science against the individual soldiers who were forced to play the pawns in the global conflict. The massive scale on which tragedy occurred between 1914 and 1918 was experienced by people worldwide with casualties in the millions and any signs of sanity obscured by human madness on a global level. The experience of the individual soldier was well remembered by German author and World War One veteran Erich Remarque in his 1928 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.[1]  Described in Remarque’s book in vivid detail, the wars greatest legacy was “shell-shock.” According to Lancet editor David Sharp in his 2006 article about military justice and shell-shock, the first recognized victim of the condition was considered at the time (1914) to “[have] been ‘rather enjoying’ his day of trench warfare in northern France and had not been afraid [up until his fateful experience with heavy artillery]” (Sharp 975). The article continues to describe the opinion of the 1914 British medical establishment[2] that the young service member was a victim of the concussive force of a nearby exploding artillery shell. It is as if to suggest that otherwise the young man was completely satisfied with the fact that the prime of his life was being spent in a muddy trench playing pawn to the world’s great powers and 20th century manufacturing. During the early 20th century throughout the various nations involved with the First World War there was a realization that it was no longer possible to assert that wartime trauma was simply a case of cowardice or laziness and more “scientific” explanations were sought (Sharp). This paper will explore the gendered explanations for shell-shock that were popularized during and after World War One as well as the ways in which those explanations led into gendered medical treatments.

Shell-shock was associated with “symptoms [that] included extreme shaking fits, weeping, shrieking, mutism, paralysis, insomnia, and the ‘thousand-yard stare’” (Cook The Great War of the Mind). The parallels between many of shell-shocks symptoms and the symptoms of neurasthenia (as a whole and final paper, the description of neurasthenia will be included from the previous section) are readily apparent. It is also apparent in the historical record that as soon as a mental condition resulting from wartime became recognized, gendered explanations for the cause of the condition were presented as well. In contrast to the explanations of internal weakness for the nervous-breakdown in women, the similar condition of shell-shock was explained in terms of a masculine or insufficiently-masculine reaction to sustained external trauma. Writing in a 2007 article from the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, Medical Researcher Ruth Rae states that

[i]nitially, it was believed that shell shock occurred after a physical shock to the brain… [when this explanation was no longer sufficient due to the high incidence of shell shock symptoms in non-combat troops] this suggestion was soon replaced with a more ephemeral explanation; the unconscious need to escape into disease, like hysteria but without the weaker, feminine connotations” (Rae 269).

The need to explain symptoms that affected both men and women in contrasting terms is significant to the ways in which gender colored the diagnosis of those in the medical field who considered their selves to be making an objective scientific analysis of the available information. Another explanation more common to the military medical establishment was that shell-shock was a “manifestation of childishness and femininity… derided as a way out of the front lines” (Cook). Despite the different takes on the condition, in each case shell-shock was first and foremost characterized in terms of gender by the medical community. Although, as witnessed in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” gender did not necessarily obscure the ability of an individual shell-shocked soldier to understand that gender had little to nothing to do with his condition.

As with any illness that is analyzed and explained through a gendered lens, the treatment of the shell-shock took on gendered characteristics as well. Affected soldiers were often subjected to various forms of external force to treat a condition that was believed to be caused by the same. Cook describes treatments from the mild to the severe involving forced isolation, gas masks filled with ether, and the ironically named shock-therapy (Cook). A particularly unsettling round of treatments is described by Dr. Dennis Duffy of the University of Toronto in his 2010 article titled “Shock Doc.”. The article is an account of the brutal techniques utilized by the Canadian psychiatrist Lewis Yealland to treat shell-shock following the First World War. In his article Duffy recounts how “[Dr. Yealland’s] job ultimately involved…‘speeding glum heroes up the line to death’… [T]he shocks went on and on – not unlike an artillery bombardment. He warned his patients that the jolts would not let up until the subject gave the doctor what he wanted. Generally, over several hours, the soldiers did so” (Duffy The Shock Doc.). A sadistic game of dominance is witnessed in Duffy’s account exacted against soldiers who in the eyes of their psychiatrist had become dominated by the overwhelming force of their enemy’s attacks. Even though treatments evolved and do not seem to typically have been as extreme as those administered by Dr. Yealland, there is a common theme throughout the various techniques. The patient’s masculinity had been compromised or destroyed due to combat. As a result of this attitude the treatment was designed to either toughen the soldier back up or hold him as irreversibly feminized.

Given the hopelessness and isolation in which many veterans found their selves following the First World War, Remarque’s execution of his protagonist Paul Bäumer reads more like an act of mercy than tragedy. The key lesson from the history of shell shock is that when people are analyzed through a rigid understanding of gender then they are almost invariably treated according to that same bias. A single misunderstood factor, in this case gender, which was considerably more complex and personal than the relevant establishments understood it to be, completely overshadowed the incredible suffering that human-beings were experiencing as a result of long-term exposure to intense emotions in a severe environment.


[1] Remarque’s novel brilliantly describes the conditions of trench warfare through the eyes and mind of his protagonist Paul Bäumer. In contrast to the gendered explanations for shell-shock from much of the medical and military establishment of the early 20th century, Remarque creates a picture of depression, detachment and terror (shell-shock) that is the result of a complex set of external and internal forces. The final scene in which Bäumer is shot by a sniper reads more as the authors attempt to commit suicide or perhaps more exactly to express his hopeless realization that no one returns from war alive. Because of the honest and cathartic way in which he relives the wartime experience, Remarque’s novel plays well as an orientation to a paper on the contrasting gendered attitudes that colored popular understandings of shell-shock during and immediately following the First World War

[2] Similar attitudes are found throughout the medical and military establishments of the major actors in the conflict during the early parts of the war.

Written by gerardhf

April 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm

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