- A Weary Road: Shell Shock in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1918 by Mark Osborne Humphries
The literature on shell shock is vast, yet very little has been written on the Canadian experience of it during the Great War. For the military authorities, shell shock was always marginal to trench foot, venereal disease, dysentery, pneumonia, measles, and influenza; nevertheless, it remained a concern for them since no less than sixteen thousand men from the Canadian Expeditionary Force (cef) were diagnosed with some form of nervous illness during the war – a figure that represented about four percent of those who served overseas. Its importance lay in what it represented: a challenge to the army’s control over the lives of men in uniform.
As soon as war started in 1914, Canadian doctors were confronted with cases of shattered nerves. They approached the problems of diagnosis and treatment using the lessons learned during the South African War of 1899–1902, which meant that nervous illness was treated in the same way as other wounds or injuries. During the first two years of the war, senior officers considered shell shock to be a minor problem – one that doctors at the front were managing well – in comparison to other forms of wastage. Such assurance was soon challenged though. The shell shock crisis in the summer of 1916, triggered by the battles of St Eloi Craters in April and Mont Sorrel in June, threatened the military effectiveness of the army for a brief moment and forced the authorities to reconsider their approach. Specialists were allowed to deploy their expertise to the front since they promised that their interventions would reduce casualties by seventy to ninety percent and help return men to duty. The results ended in failure. However, the subsequent introduction of new diagnostic regulations at the [End Page 152] front reduced both reporting and admissions. As a result, nervous illness never posed a serious threat to the military efficiency of the cef as a whole after 1916, in spite of localized crises in 1917 and 1918. Furthermore, for most of the war, “an evolving and complex sense of what it meant to be a masculine soldier and of how brave men should behave in the face of adversity” self-regulated nervous illness within the ranks (327). The expression of emotional distress in culturally acceptable ways was no longer a real option. Indeed, by the war’s end, shell shock had been delegitimized and ascribed to morale and hereditary defects rather than the traumas of war. Nevertheless, the war left a significant number of Canadian soldiers traumatized for life. A pervasive part of life at the front – a reality illustrated in the many poignant biographical sketches introduced by the author – shell shock ebbed and flowed with the tides of battles.
This monograph focuses on the lived experiences of soldiers and doctors in the trenches as well as the policies and decisions made by senior officers in the rear. Many front-line officers and doctors sympathized with those who suffered; many brass hats and doctors, anxious to regain control of soldiers’ minds and bodies, not only perceived nervous illness as a serious threat to morale, discipline, and military efficiency, but they also saw shell shock as a sham, a cover for cowardice, and its claimants unworthy of sympathy. During the war, the military authorities never solved the shell shock problem through disciplinary, medical, or psychiatric interventions; ultimately, they “had to negotiate with the men at the front, reaching accommodations that balanced military effectiveness against the need to recognize that even brave men had a limited ability to persevere” (10–11). Mark Osborne Humphries rightly concludes that, though soldiers were not passive victims of an oppressive military bureaucracy, “they were never fully in control of their own destinies” (13).
A well-deserved tribute to the many men who kept fighting long after their nerves had begun to give way, this well-researched and well-written monograph will appeal first and foremost to...