Shell shock: a century of silence

Frank Masters
Frank Masters, a veteran of WWII

As we approach ANZAC Day, I thought it was timely to reflect on the legacy of war.

I came across this podcast of historian Jay M. Winter, the Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University, who is a specialist on World War I and its impact on the 20th century, in an address at Sydney University last year.

In this presentation, Jay Winter examines the incidence of shell shock during the First World War and argues that it was far more common than the medical and other historical records indicate.

He contends, and I agree, that shell shock – what we now know as PTSD – its effects and significance have been underplayed for a century.

In the presentation, he makes reference to the Monash team’s research efforts which resulted in the book I blogged about recently – World War One, A History in 100 Stories, by Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley & Laura James.

All men, he says, despite popular belief, have a breaking point and that many veterans are a ‘time bomb waiting to go off’. Others are in a sort of limbo between sanity and insanity.

Most tellingly, he speaks about the ‘language of masculinity’ and the ‘silence’, i.e. the failure to speak about mental problems.

He also alluded to the issue of late onset of post-war mental problems – I saw that in my own father (pictured above) who had a typical WWII experience – Middle East, brought back, training in far north Queensland, two stints in New Guinea and then a desperation to leave the Army at the end of it, only to struggle to settle into civilian life in the first post-war years. Raising seven sons then took his time and energy so that it was only in late life that he had the time to think about his experience in New Guinea and then the nightmares emerged. Fortunately he wasn’t a violent man with his kids – but many families suffered a brutal family life that descended into misogynistic violence.

This is really worth listening to. As much as we honour those who gave their lives, there were others who paid a high price too for the whole of their lives.

Highlights of Shell shock, Gallipoli and the generation of silence co presented by the Beyond 1914 project and Sydney Ideas – University of Sydney – can be accessed at this link

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