Shell Shocked, Part 2

Continued from Part One

Long after the end of World War I, Field Marshall Douglas Haig remains a controversial figure.

As Commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force during some of the most intense battles of the war, his military decisions played a pivotal role in ensuring an Allied victory. Though honoured in his 200pxdouglas_haig lifetime, later historians accused him of recklessly throwing away the lives of countless British and Commonwealth soldiers and labeled him as "the Butcher of the Somme". While other historians have defended his actions and argued that his decisions were based on sound military tactics, what is not in dispute is that 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers under his command were executed on a variety of military charges ranging from cowardice to desertion.

Although some of the soldiers had been previously treated for shell shock, it may never be known how many of the executed soldiers (some as young as sixteen) were suffering from psychological trauma resulting from their combat experiences. The circumstances of their offending may have varied but the end result was the same: a brief trial (often as short as twenty minutes) with no appeal and subsequent execution at dawn by firing squad. Haig reviewed and approved each of the execution orders (although they represented only a fraction of the 3080 death sentences handed down by British military courts).

When public criticism arose back in England, Haig defended the executions by emphasizing the necessity of enforcing discipline and downplaying the possibility that any of the soldiers could have been suffering from a psychiatric illness. In many cases, families of executed soldiers were not told of the circumstances of how their loved ones had died although word usually leaked out. The stigma of cowardice would remain for more than ninety years until a blanket pardon was issued for the 306 executed soldiers in 2006. While the pardon did not annul the actual sentences, some closure was provided for surviving family members. By comparison, Germany only executed twenty-five soldiers during the war and had pardoned them all within a decade after the war ended.

The use of the term "shell shock" fell into disrepute over the course of the war and was formally dropped as a diagnosis by 1918. By the end of World War I, the British army alone had dealt with approximately 80,000 cases of shell shock. The problems did not end in 1918 as Allied governments were faced with the monumental task of reintegrating so many psychologically disabled soldiers into a society for which they were unprepared.  A British royal commission published a report in 1922 laying out guidelines for dealing with shell-shocked solders but the stigma surrounding combat stress remained. Germany faced the same problem with its returning veterans. The resources of the impoverished Weimar republic was strained to the breaking point trying to deal with them all (including a shell-shocked Austrian veteran named Adolf Hitler whose personality was permanently altered by his war experiences).

Few lessons seemed to have been learned from the World War I experience and it would not be until 1980 (after considerable lobbying by veterans groups) that post-traumatic stress disorder would be formally recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis. Given the ongoing psychological problems faced by troops returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and the struggle they face for proper treatment, it's hard not to wonder whether these lessons have been learned yet.


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