Review: Broken Men (Reid)


Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914 – 30.

This book fails to deliver on the promise in its subtitle and dramatic front cover photo. It tells almost nothing about the causes and manifestations of shell shock, and very few specifics about its treatment, but dwells primarily on the politics that shaped the military, medical and public attitudes that may have influenced veterans’ mental health policies and protocols in the period in question. Even the tiny back cover photo of veterans weaving baskets seems to have been misappropriated, because all of the men in the picture are lower limb amputees.

Reid also reveals some stunning lack of research and insight, in the following passage:

“Moreover, experimental treatment was not confined to the mentally wounded. Stagg recollected treating a man with rheumatism by giving him tablets daily: ‘When his ears buzzed we had to stop it. What that had to do with it I don’t know’. It was not only shell-shocked men who were receiving inadequate or untried medical attention.” (page 68)

There was nothing at all experimental, inadequate or untried about the administration of “tablets” to a man with rheumatism. The tablets were most likely aspirin, which is temporarily ototoxic, and causes tinnitus, a high-pitched noise in the ears. The pain relieving properties of willow bark had been known since antiquity; the bark’s active ingredient, salicylic acid, was isolated in the mid-18th century; acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) was synthesized in the mid-19th century; aspirin was prepared from ASA in 1897; and the drug had been prescribed as an antirheumatic since the turn of the 20th century (see Squibb’s Materia Medica, 1906 edition).

Reid observes in a prior passage, “Field ambulance personnel did not always have a medical background…. Certainly 17-year-old Leonard Stagg had no prior first aid experience when he joined the RAMC as a nursing orderly in 1914.” (page 53). Because she was aware of the reason for the appalling ignorance demonstrated by Stagg in his memoir, her assumption that “tablets” were inappropriate treatment for rheumatism pain is inexcusable in a historian.

The book is conspicuously organized in the manner of a university term paper: “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; and then tell ’em what you told ’em.” The lengthy introductory and concluding passages that characterize this redundant approach take up much space that could have been more profitably used to provide other pertinent and enlightening information. Its saving grace is in its comprehensive end notes section, which reveals where to find the clinical details about shell shock and its treatment that are obliquely referred to in the text.

A relatively superficial overview, useful only as a springboard for future research. Disappointing.

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