There are few ways to effectively communicate the gravity of the paradigm shift that occurred throughout Europe following the final declaration of the armistice on November 11, 1918 which put an end to one of the most devastating and bloody wars in history.
Not only was the whole of Europe organized into different countries with new alliances and borders, all parts of Europe were left reeling from the dramatic population losses and the return of survivors who were rendered unrecognizable either through the massive sustained injuries and, less visibly although certainly not less important, hard to recognize emotionally following a war that produced mental casualties that are impossible to calculate in numbers. This new paradigm of reorganized borders and population devastation created an entire generation, particularly of young men who were lucky enough to return home following the war.
Unlike in successive wars that were categorized by a different set of class values (this is a concept that will be explored further) and subsequent class participation, the First World War in Europe had heavy involvement of upper and upper-middle class young men, many of whom never returned home and those who were lucky enough to come back, found themselves in difficult situations as they tried to grapple with their experiences and “shell shock.” The issue of shell shock is important in helping to define Europe’s disenfranchised youth returning home and will be given broader attention in future paragraphs. What is important as a preface to the discussion, however, is the very concept of a “lost generation.” This does not simply refer to the massive numbers of casualties across class lines or the population loss that occurred; rather it refers to the more specific condition of a European loss of the future intellectual elite. “Although ever war death was wasteful, the deaths of thousands of educated and privileged young men brought about what was called a ‘Lost Generation’ of future politicians philosophers, and poets who never had the chance to fulfill their promise” (winter lost gen article 466).
According to an analysis of enlistment data, the wealthy were the first to sign up to fight in the Great War and then, upon casualty statistics, were most likely to the first to be killed. There are several explanations for why the he wealthy of Europe, particularly in Britain, were predisposed to join the military effort, one of which was due to simple economic conditions which, when combined with the dominant glorification of going to war for this group of young men, were enough to send them off with little hesitation. Aside from the cultural reasons for going to war which will be address in more detail, there were simple economic reasons that allowed this privileged class of young men to go off and fight. Quite simply, their financial service in their homes was not needed; they were often students or young men with few obligations in terms of earning their families money, thus this “great adventure” was one that was open to them, but not to young men who were needed at home. “Other social groups, even if they shared the same zeal to serve, may have feared the consequences to dependents of long separation on active military service…Others were forbidden or restrained because they were needed on the home front” (Winter Britain Lost Gen: 466).
The term “shell shock” came into being during the First World War and was used to describe the emotional fallout soldiers faced, which has been transcribed into more medical terms in contemporary discussions about war and its emotional devastation by “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The term shell shock, however, is perhaps more appropriate to an analysis of the cultural aftermath of WWI as it explicitly makes references to the actual modes of war damage through the term “shells” and the term “shock” which seems more adequate to describe the unprecedented scope of violence and technology-driven violent acts that created genuine shock throughout all of Europe—not simply on the soldiers themselves. One scholar takes the argument that “the term shell sock was a specifically Anglo-Saxon representation not solely of damaged soldiers, but more generally of central facets of the war itself” (Lost gen article Winter: 467)… “The injury was validated by the term, enabling many people and their families to bypass the stigma associated with terms like “hysteria” which gave the connotation arising out of psychological vulnerability” (Winter Shell Shock article 8).
“It is true enough that in a host of ways Britain never recovered from the shock of the 1914-18 war. The war poets and novelists who wrote of ‘shell shock’ provided a poetic way of making their point… Those works of literary men have lasted; they are part of the history of shell-shock because they have told later generations what it was. Individual memories fade away, but cultural representations endue (Winter Shell Shock Article page 10).
Accord to the Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry Into Shell-Shock, which was released just following the armistice, their initial assessment of shell-shock was based on the idea that those suffering from complaints upon returning home were simply too close to the actual site of explosions and suffered neurological damage from this proximity. The report states, however, they over time they had to go back and reevaluate this initial supposition. The report states, “It was observed, in fact, that these conditions were perpetually occurring although the patient had not suffered from commotional disturbance of the nervous system caused by bursting shells” (Shell Report 5) Their final assessment was that “the change from civil life brought about my enlistment and physical training was sufficient to cause neurasthenic and hysterical symptoms, and that the wear and tear of a prolonged campaign of trench warfare with its terrible hardships and anxieties, and of attack and perhaps repulse, produced a condition of mind and body properly falling under the term ‘war neurosis’ practically indistinguishable from the forms of neurosis known to every doctor under ordinary conditions of civil life” (Shell Report, 5).