British Army Faces New Challenge – What’s Real Nervous Breakdown?
Soldiers Put on Trial; Face Death Sentences.
Special to The Great War Project.
(17-20 July) By this time a century ago at the Battle of the Somme on the Western Front, the British military is facing another daunting problem.
“As the fighting at the Somme continued,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “thousands of men left the battlefield with their nerves shattered. Reporting sick and being asked what had happened, most would answer – shell-shock.”
Shell-shock, a term that the First World War introduces, proves to be an enormous problem for the British army. “With some,” reports Gilbert, ‘this was clearly the case, but for the medical authorities it was not necessarily so.”
According to Gilbert, “the official medical history writes: To explain to a man that his symptoms were the result of disordered emotional conditions due to his rough experience in the line, and not as he imagined to some serious disturbance of his nervous system produced by bursting shells, became the most frequent and successful form of psychotherapy.”
In many cases the soldier experiencing shell-shock needed two weeks of rest and then officers sent thousands of soldiers back to the line.
Still thousands of soldiers do experience real shell-shock.
“It was during the Battle of the Somme, that because of the intensification of nervous breakdowns and shell-shock, special centers were opened in each army area for diagnosis and treatment.”
“The view of the military authorities, as the official medical history emphasizes, was that the subject of mental collapse was ‘so bound up with the maintenance of morale in the army that every soldier who is non-effective owing to nervous breakdown must be made the subject of careful inquiry.”
“In no case is he to be evacuated to base unless his condition warrants such a procedure.”
This is not an easy distinction to make.
“Simply put,” writes historian Adam Hochschild, “even after the most obedient soldier had had enough shells rain down on him, without any means of fighting back, he often lost all self-control.