Neurology has an article that looks back at the dark history of ‘treating’ war trauma with torture during World War I.
During the conflict, ‘war neurosis‘ became a serious problem as thousands of troops where disabled by psychological trauma that often expressed itself as extreme anxiety and seemingly neurological symptoms – something called ‘shell shock’ early on in the conflict
Contrary to appearances, symptoms such as paralysis, blindness and tremors were not due to physical damage to the nervous system but to psychological stress.
These were classic presentations of ‘hysteria’, now diagnosed as conversion disorder, although many in the forces just assumed the affected soldiers were faking and felt they were motivated by cowardice.
Most famously, psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers pioneered a psychotherapeutic treatment for ‘shell shock’ for British troops, although as there was no standard treatment so different countries and even different hospitals used different methods.
One of the most desperate ‘treatments’ was popularised by neurologists Clovis Vincent and Gustave Roussy, who widely applied it to traumatised French troops during the Great War.
The method involved ordering the traumatised soldier to go back to the front and electrocuting them until they agreed.
Although officially called faradization “torpillage was the term chosen by soldiers receiving the treatment because they likened the electric part of the therapy to being hit by a shell (une torpille).”
At first, faradization was carried out using virtually pain-free currents so that the soldiers would relate the painless nature of the treatment to their comrades. However, Roussy recommended the use of more intense faradization in difficult cases. To begin with, electrodes were placed on the targeted areas and then, if necessary, on more sensitive areas such as the soles of the feet or the scrotum. It was sometimes necessary to incorporate certain complementary measures like disciplinary isolation or a milk diet. Soldiers in the recovery phase performed military exercises under the supervision of officers who had been cured using the same method.
Growing awareness of the cruelty of the ‘treatment’ and an outraged story in a French national newspaper stopped the torpillage technique by the end of the war but it remains a dark chapter in the history of combat trauma management.
Link to Neurology article ‘The “torpillage” neurologists of World War I’