Shell Shock: Robert Graves’ own description

Soon to be young officers 1914

Shell shock, by Robert Graves

This is Robert Graves’ own dispassionate account of the deterioration of young officers at the front.

Having now been in the trenches for five months, I had passed my prime. For the first three weeks, an officer was of little use in the front line; he did not know his way about, had not learned the rules of health and safety, or grown accustomed to recognising degrees of danger.

officer western front

Young Officer 1914

Between three weeks and four weeks he was at his best, unless he happened to have any particular bad shock or sequence of shocks. Then his usefulness gradually declined as neurasthenia developed. At six months he was still more or less all right; but by nine or 10 months, unless he had been given a few weeks’ rest on a technical course, or in hospital, he usually became a drag on the other company officers. After a year or 15 months he was often worse than useless.

Dr WHR Rivers [the famous psychiatrist at Craiglockhart hospital in Edinburgh who was both doctor and mentor to Siegfried Sassoon] told me later that the action of one of the ductless glands – I think the thyroid – caused this slow general decline in military usefulness by failing at a certain point to pump its sedative chemical into the blood. Without its continued assistance the man went about his tasks in an apathetic and doped condition, cheated into further endurance. It has taken my blood 10 years to recover.

Patient suffering from shell shock

Officers had a less laborious but a more nervous time than the men. There were proportionately twice as many neurasthenic cases among officers as among men, though a man’s average expectancy of trench service before getting killed or wounded was twice as long as an officer’s. Officers between the ages of 23 and 33 could count on a longer useful life than those older or younger. I was too young. Men over 40, though not suffering from want of sleep so much as those under 20, had less resistance to sudden alarms and shocks.

The unfortunates were officers who had endured two years or more of continuous trench service. In many cases they became dipsomaniacs. I knew three or four who had worked up to the point of two bottles of whisky a day before being lucky enough to get wounded or sent home in some other way. A two-bottle company commander of one of our line battalions is still alive who, in three shows running, got his company needlessly destroyed because he was no longer capable of taking clear decisions.

• Extracted from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Good-bye to All That (first published by Carcanet in 1929).

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