On 31 October 1914, a twenty-year-old British soldier was attempting to pick his way through a barbed-wire entanglement when he suddenly found himself in the impact area of a German artillery barrage. The shells exploded so close to him that his haversack was torn away from his body, but when the shelling had subsided and he stumbled into a nearby trench, his comrades were surprised to discover that his only apparent physical injury was a burn on his little finger. Not long after, they noticed that the young soldier was bathed in a cold sweat and was trembling. He soon began to cry out that he was going blind. Two of his comrades led him to a dressing station for treatment, where he was seen by Dr Charles Myers, a psychologist attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps. Myers attempted to treat the soldier with hypnosis but achieved little and, after two weeks, the young man was sent back to England to convalesce.
The significance of this incident was that Myers wrote it up as ‘case one’ in the first article to examine ‘Shell Shock’ in The Lancet: in effect, the first formal analysis of the damage done by combat to the minds of those who take part in it. This is the starting point of Matthew Green’s Aftershock, an attempt, in his words, to answer