The use of polycrystalline ceramics in engineering applications requires a better knowledge of microstructural response than exists at present. The continuum response of the alumina AD995 to shock loading has been extensively investigated. This work aims to connect microstructural response with continuum observations. Over recent years, workers have reported failure in various polycrystalline ceramics occurring behind a propagating front running behind the shock. These phenomena have been investigated using embedded stress sensors and a recovery technique that has allowed the observation of the microstructure above and below the Hugoniot elastic limit (HEL). These results are brought together here to explain the observed behavior. The failure front velocity is found to change with the applied stress, in particular, it slows markedly as the HEL is exceeded. Further, the curvature of histories recorded by sensors may be related to the observed response. The evidence in the microstructure shows that the response below HEL is dominated by the intergranular failure, while above it by plasticity in grains (including twinning), which alters the deformation and failure characteristics. These microstructural features are combined with the continuum observations to review the response of the alumina. © 2007 American Institute of Physics.