Stigma and “Cowardice” in World War I and Some Thoughts

Today is Easter, the festival of renewal and hope. The story of the crucifixion and redemption is a powerful one. I hope everyone who celebrates has a good day. I’m continuing to work through the novel, and will be blogging more about some of the historical events that inspired it over the coming months.

Editing the war scenes in the novel, picking through each line and sentence and paragraph for any possible inaccuracies and infelicities, has brought the unfortunate history back to me. It’s impossible to pore through books and source material without being brought out of oneself for a while and taking a moment to feel common, human sympathy with those who suffered. Men and boys who could not endure day after day of artillery bombardment. Or, in the case of this teenage lad:

Private Thomas Highgate was the first to suffer such military justice. Unable to bear the carnage of 7,800 British troops at the Battle of Mons, he had fled and hidden in a barn. He was undefended at his trial because all his comrades from the Royal West Kents had been killed, injured or captured. Just 35 days into the war, Private Highgate was executed at the age of 17.”

(from the BBC webpage)

A seventeen-year-old boy. I want to mother the poor fellow and give him tea and biscuits. But I can’t reach 100 years into the past and stick his bullet-riddled, torn body back together. I can’t give him his innocence back.

Much of this suffering was inflicted by older men on younger. One example of these older men was the bould Canadian doctor, Sir Andrew Macphail. According to Wikipedia, Macphail enlisted in the War at the age of 50 (now there’s a man who wants to recapture his earlier virility if ever I heard of one.) He served in the Ambulance Corps – heroically, one presumes, as I doubt the man could take a dump in the loos back at Base in Rouen without making it a heroic one –  and took it upon himself to write an Official History of the Great War in 1925. About mental breakdown in combat, he had this to say:

The War Office went so far as to recognize three forms of neurosis or psychoneurosis, namely, shell-shock, hysteria, and neurasthenia. Sir Frederick Mott observed, however, that all persons so affected ‘had an inborn or acquired disposition to emotivity‘… Soldiers who developed these manifestations in the stress of war would have presented a similar spectacle in corresponding circumstances in civil life.

So what he’s saying is that the massive numbers of shell-shock victims on the battlefield were all mentally weak anyway. Ladies and gentlemen, victim-blaming par excellence, 1925 stylee, with no statistical data anywhere. Though I can’t help wondering how he would have categorised a man like Siegfried Sassoon, who earned a Military Cross for his courage in battle then later had a huge nervous breakdown, chucked the medal into the Thames and wrote a letter to the papers telling them the whole war was a horrific swizz. That would stuff up Macphail’s theory a bit. But the good doctor is not finished yet:

Under cover of these vague and mysterious symptoms the malingerer found refuge, and impressed a stigma upon those who were suffering from a real malady. ..What was once a disease had in 1917 become a stigma, and yet…fear of the ostracism of contempt for weakness at best and cowardice at worst did much to counteract the emotion of fear of the enemy…Hysteria is the most epidemical of all diseases, and too obvious special facilities for treatment encouraged its development. ‘Shell-shock’ is a manifestation of childishness and femininity. Against such there is no remedy.

Well once something is called “feminine” you are pretty screwed. “You crack up under relentless shelling like a girl!”, eh? It astounds me that it never once occurs to this man, who is presumably equipped with all intellectual faculties, that the war itself was a horrific waste and slaughter, that men were asked – and after early 1916, forced, thanks to conscription – to endure what man cannot endure, and that the whole rotten system was to maintain them in this unrealistic – and insane – state of endurance so the old men could get their stats right.

Thankfully, now, the approach – in Britain at least – is more enlightened and all the young men shot at dawn have been pardoned. Have a peaceful Easter, everyone, and as Stevie Wonder sings, keep hatred from the mighty and the mighty from the small.

8 thoughts on “Stigma and “Cowardice” in World War I and Some Thoughts

      1. Had some drama with needing a bathroom replacement without notice but now have access to facilities somewhere else. Working away on the edits!

  1. Wow. What a heartbreaking, sobering, gut-wrenching post. I can’t even think about what those men (and boys) went through without getting upset about it.

    1. I’m finding it very engrossing when I go through the scenes, especially if I’m confirming any historical stuff. What really gets me going is the entitlement of one generation and the injustice committed against another. And my characters are very much part of that conflict!

      1. I’m sure class had something to do with it, too – that’s what always struck me about WWI. It was the poorer boys from the land who were cut to shreds, and the higher-ups who often survived – though, of course, with their minds destroyed a lot of the time. There were very few survivors of that war, in any true sense. I really can’t wait to read your book, Susan.

  2. Oh I tell you Sinead, I cannot wait to have it finished. It’s wall-to-wall edits right now! But it’s all in the service of improving the story so it’s a good thing.

    Re class there is an interesting and contradictory narrative: the officer class were mostly derived from the middle and upper classes, but they had I think a fivefold more chance of getting killed in battle. They were often young and hadn’t a clue. The men had better odds, but they were more likely to be shot for cowardice. And if they were Irish, disproportionately so. And probably Dominion/Empire troops were more harshly treated too.

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