From shell shock to PTSD: How our knowledge of combat trauma has changed in 100 years

Wayne Sharrocks has had treatment for PTSD after serving in the army.

Wayne Sharrocks has had treatment for PTSD after serving in the army. - Credit: Archant

At the close of the First World War, little was known about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD expert Tony Gauvain.

PTSD expert Tony Gauvain. - Credit: Archant

Veterans who came back from the trenches suffering from distress were thought to have shell shock – a prolonged form of concussion from the impact of shells.

Treatment didn’t last long, and sufferers were seen as weak.

One hundred years on, and our understanding of PTSD has dramatically changed.

Nowadays there are a number of charities dedicated to supporting service men and women who’ve left the forces, including PTSD Resolution.

British soldiers negotiating a shell-cratered, Winter landscape along the River Somme in late 1916 a

British soldiers negotiating a shell-cratered, Winter landscape along the River Somme in late 1916 after the close of the Allied offensive. - Credit: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

Wayne Sharrocks, who lives in Stratford, contacted the charity in 2014.

The 29-year-old served twice in Afghanistan, where he’d seen his commander, Kevin Fortuna, step on an improvised explosive device. Kevin died a few days later.

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“I didn’t think I was struggling mentally at all,” he said.

“I joined the army at 17, and when I left at 24, I had no plan.

“I told myself I could start again, I thought people would give me a job seeing as I was just out of the army. I ended up having to work in factories and my mental health was really bad.”

Wayne was told repeatedly he was suffering from PTSD, and after seeing his GP, was diagnosed with severe depression and put on medication.

But still he couldn’t accept it.

He enrolled on a course at Leeds Beckett University, which he had to leave, and got a job with the Quakers, which he also left, due to his health.

“I remember being in this room at university and I felt like I had this goldfish bowl on my head,” he said.

“My thoughts were muffled, but they were saying, you can never survive in this world.

“The last year before I finally got in touch with the charity I went really dark. I just didn’t think I could fit in with society, I didn’t see the point in anything.”

Wayne was urged to contact PTSD Resolution by his girlfriend, Eleanor. He took up four counselling sessions of the six offered, because that’s all he needed. He’s now back working at the Quakers, and chairs a weekly podcast.

“A lot of the charities I went to were just signposting, they just pushed you to somebody else,” he said.

“The first time I got in contact with PTSD Resolution, they genuinely wanted to do something.

“Only in the last six months have I been able to look at my old army pictures. I finally came to some acceptance. It’s no longer in my mind.”

Tony Gauvain, 77, a therapist who set the charity up nine years ago, said our knowledge of PTSD and the trauma suffered in combat has improved drastically since the First World War.

“One hundred years ago, there was far less understanding of human matter and the brain,” he said.

“Those who went to the trenches and were lucky enough to come back were very often severely damaged mentally.

“What they didn’t know then, or what they thought, was that it was a terminal condition, so they would lock them up. It was as harsh as that.”

There are an estimated 2.6 million veterans in the UK.

According to the charity Combat Stress, 20 per cent of those will suffer some kind of mental health problem, from depression and anxiety, to PTSD.

Since 1945, there have been huge strides in our understanding of trauma, Tony said. PTSD isn’t seen as a permanent disability now – it’s treatable.

The ex-colonel set up PTSD Resolution because he believed the therapy he’s trained in, Human Givens (HG), would be especially suited to helping veterans.

“The unique thing about HG is the stress laid upon the connection between therapist and patient,” he said.

“People have come to us saying they would talk to others and it would be condescending. The HG therapists deliver counselling which puts emphasis on the relay of emotions.”

To find out more about PTSD Resolution, visit