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Soldiers and shellshock: Some Australian experiences during World War I

Robinson, Elaine (2001) Soldiers and shellshock: Some Australian experiences during World War I. Honours thesis, Murdoch University.

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When Australian troops were called to fight for the British Empire during World War I they had to deal not only with new technology and new methods of fighting that war, but also with increasing incidences of psychological ailments, or shell shock. Compounding the problem, while medical knowledge was rapidly expanding, expert psychological knowledge had yet to become established. It meant there was little if any recognition of this apparently 'new' medical condition.

Medical practitioners in both Britain and Australia held fast to pre-war doctrines that attributed any psychological condition to hereditary factors, weakness or degeneracy. Some doctors did shift their beliefs as the war progressed, but the profession in both nations remained reluctant to consider alternative causes. This greatly influenced how the medical profession thought about and treated soldiers who complained of symptoms unrelated to an obvious physical injury. When Australian soldiers with shell shock returned home, they encountered a medical profession that was equally dismissive of their condition. These soldiers were often regarded as an undeserving financial burden on society.

Soldiers and other people at the front, such as nurses and orderlies, took a more conciliatory view toward anyone who fell victim to shell shock. Even though they were influenced to some degree by the prevailing medical doctrine, they recognised such generalisations could not explain shell shock. They were far more aware of the impact that the war had on some soldiers, and recognised that to succumb to shell shock did not mean the soldier was 'weak'. Rather, the high number of soldiers who suffered from shell shock underscored the fragility of men who were faced with extreme trauma. During and immediately after the war, the medical and military authorities on the whole were not entirely convinced that there may have been a psychological explanation for shell shock, and this had consequences in terms of treatment of and compensation for men who returned from the front.

Item Type: Thesis (Honours)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Inquiry
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Gothard, Jan
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