A soldier looks throught the lenses, straight to the photographer eyes, with his mad laugh. The scene comes from Flers-Courcelette (September, 15 to 22 1916) during a battle which occurred along with the Somme’s offensive. Next to him, several companions are looked after others men while the soil above them shows relics still smoking from the battlefield.
The unnamed soldier is crouched. Maybe no one around him has noticed his mental state but he is gripped by “Shell Shock”, a temporary or permanent mental damage that was hitting men at the front. What suggests his traumatic condition is the peculiar expression that the picture portrays:
the soldier is smiling
At that time, laughters on pictures were considered as improper or at least not so common, so the huddled man from the trenches had an odd reaction towards the photographer.
There was nothing to laugh about
“Shell Shock” symptoms were often tiredness, tremors, confusion, nightmares and inability to reason. The circumstances in which those men where immersed were terrifying. The weapons employed in this war were denying any type of heroism, courage or ability. 60% of the fallen men were killed by artillery fire, shot from huge distances. The consequences of that period still resounds on nowadays lands. Many places, Verdun Battle Zone being one of them, are still having poisoned ground due to the Great War.
The tremendous aspect of this event was that the victims of this syndrome, similar yet different from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), were tried in a court for desertion and some got executed.
The British General John Gort declared that none of these cases had been registered in “good” departments, therefore Shell Shock was simply something to be associated with cowardice.
Obviously some soldiers faked mental diseases, hoping to be discharged but, in many cases (as shown in the video underneath) soldiers had been forever marked by the experience of the war. The Picture with the Laughing Soldier is one of the 5 most terrifying pictures of the Great War. It reminds us of the effects, not only physical but also psychological, of the devastation caused by armed conflicts.
Below: the effect of Shell Shock on soldiers