Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme, 2016

Written by Taylor Downing
Review by Douglas Kemp

The acute psychological stress inflicted on soldiers during the mass industrialised killing of The Great War is reasonably well known. The author studies the huge increase in the incidences of shell shock, now generally termed post-traumatic stress disorder, that accompanied the Allied onslaught against the German lines on the Somme in the summer of 1916. This is not a clinical study of the origins and impact of shell shock upon the human psyche, but rather Downing examines the military response to this crisis. After the constant horrors and death of the first day of the Somme attacks, the incidences of reported shell shock increased notably. Senior military commanders saw the dangers of letting this get out of hand, and therefore laid the blame on poor unit leadership and cowardly soldiering, rather than accept how utterly horrific the constant exposure to death and disfigurement was for those unfortunate men trapped in the trenches.

This is a well-researched account, often relying on secondary sources, of how the British military were slow to recognise and act upon, the dreadful psychological damage being done to so many soldiers while exposed to the inescapable horrors of the Great War.