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Myths, Lies and Distorions - WW1 Part 2

Phil Perry

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First World War Myths Lies and Distortions






The vast majority of those who were executed were suffering from shell shock, a condition that the Army deliberately failed to acknowledge


Medical personnel had known for years that the stress of battle could induce neuroses in soldiers. Cases of “battle neuroses” had been identified during the wars in South Africa and many of the survivors from Rorke’s Drift were found to be suffering from acute combat stress. While it is true that the British Army paid less attention to psychiatry than other continental armies, this was because the British Army was a much smaller, professional volunteer force, rather than an army made up from mass conscription and therefore more prone to combat induced stress..


The term “shell shock” was coined by Dr Charles Myers, who encountered trauma cases whilst working in a field hospital in 1914. Myers thought these psychiatric conditions were caused by soldiers being in close proximity to an exploding shell, causing damage to the membranes of the brain. A significant number of medical personnel and members of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) disagreed with this hypothesis. They believed that the symptoms and hypersensitivity such as startle reactions, irritability, sleeping disorders and exaggerated fear had a psychological rather than a physical cause. However, the term “shell shock” passed into everyday usage, although the RAMC put inverted commas on the term because they thought it misleading. They preferred to class the psychological condition as stress caused by combat and the term “combat stress” is the accepted term today.


People suffering from psychological stress are not always responsible for their actions. The British Army during the First World War recognised this and classed these as “neurasthenic cases.” To look at it brutally from the perspective of a field officer who needed to maintain his bayonet strength, “shell shock” was easier to fake than a physical wound and it has been ever thus. The tragedy is that campaigners with political motivation, have convinced the public that everyone punished for a military misdemeanour during the First World War, had been suffering from “shell shock” and were therefore not responsible for their actions.


And to refute another myth, “shell shock” was categorised as a war injury like any other with no stigma attached. The condition was dealt with by sending the man to the rear area where he could recover, or in severe cases, to training or administration units in the UK or to a hospital where it could be treated, followed by rehabilitation leave. This was treatment for Siegfried Sassoon, when it was recognised by his superior officers that he was suffering from combat stress. In the case of “shell shock” being used as a defence for cowardice, a doctor involved in the individual’s treatment would be asked to certify the case and no soldiers were executed who were prescribed as suffering from “Shell shock.” There were very few cases where a man using this defence had it turned down and were subsequently executed.


Due to the rising unease about the perceived treatment of soldiers, in 1920 the government set up the “Southborough Committee,” an enquiry into the causes and treatment of “shell shock.” The chairman was Lord Southborough and the panel comprised of eleven doctors who had treated the casualties of combat stress, the former Deputy Judge Advocate of the BEF in France, and two MPs. Evidence was heard from historians, medical personnel, soldiers who had been prescribed as suffering from “shell shock” and military and civilian lawyers.


The committee’s report began by demanding that the term “shell shock” should be expunged from the record as a “gross misnomer.” It never was. It recognised that it was a genuine affliction bet felt it should be characterised as an illness rather than a battle casualty. The report went on to identify certain indicators of susceptibility to “shell shock,” such as a family history of mental illness, low intelligence and high suggestibility and that recruits should be screened to identify those who could be vulnerable. This is now standard procedure for the recruitment of Armed Forces personnel. It noted that units with high morale, good motivation and discipline had far less cases of “shell shock.”


The committee also forensically examined the Court Martial procedures and was satisfied that from autumn 1914, legal and medical authorities examined any allegations that “shell shock” had been a contributing factor to an offence committed. The definition of cowardice was scrutinised and it was concluded that while all men may feel and display fear, this only developed into cowardice when a man was capable of controlling his fear, but didn’t do so.


It concluded that all individuals could and eventually would suffer from nervous disorders if exposed to battle conditions for long enough. An RAF Medical Officer likened it to a “run on the bank,” insofar as all men had reserves of courage, but if a man was not given sufficient time to re-stock his “current account,” his reserves would run out and he would break down. It is a pity that the RAF didn’t show such insight in its treatment of Bomber Command personnel, who unable to take any more during their thirty operations. They would be reduced to the ranks, given menial jobs around the station and had their records annotated with “Lacking in Moral Fibre,” the stigma of LMF. None were shot for cowardice, as were no British Servicemen during World War Two. There were soldiers from Ceylon executed for mutiny during WW II. The 15 mutineers were court martialled on the Cocos Islands. Seven men were sentenced to death and four soldiers received terms of imprisonment.


Despite accepted wisdom, the British Army made concerted efforts to reduce psychiatric cases with what the Director General of the RAMC called: “gradual, sympathetic, efficient and thorough training.” So another myth bites the dust. Soldiers weren’t rushed into the front line with little or no training. Every effort was made to rotate the units so that formations did not spend long periods in the front line, with periods of rest, sports and education, however in certain situations, cases of “shell shock” did see an increase. Nobody liked the Ypres Salient and cases of combat stress were greater there than any other section of the front. Constant patrolling and trench raids also increased the risks. In the case of officers, having responsibility for their soldiers generally protected them from mental trauma, but in periods of rest and while in their billets, especially if they had been promoted above their abilities, the cases rose.


The Southborough Committee made a number of recommendations. All units should where possible be regularly rotated and moved to other areas of the front. Officers should be trained to monitor their troops for signs and symptoms of combat stress, all troops should be given training in coping with fear and the importance of welfare was recognised. With timely intervention “shell shock” cases could be managed behind the lines and returned swiftly to the support network of their comrades.


Modern psychologists would agree with the majority of the findings of the Southborough Committee, however, the current Consultant Psychologist to the British Army, has pointed out that a feeling of helplessness and the inability to control events is seen as a major contributing factor. Current research shows that officers and NCOs tend to suffer less from combat stress, as they feel more in control of the situation. The charge that victims of “shell shock” were executed in the First World War is not supported by the evidence.


Executions were carried out by a firing squad of an officer and twelve men with rifles. In rare occasions the firing squad was drawn from the victim’s own regiment. The squad was paraded and given the order to load, then told to ground arms and move ten paces to the rear, facing away from their arms. The officer would inspect the rifles, and in some cases unload one. The condemned man would be led in blindfolded and either tied to a post or a chair. If his guards of the previous night had been empathetic, he would be out of his brains with rum. A square of paper was pinned to the condemned man’s chest and the squad marched back to the rifles and ordered to pick them up. The orders to aim and fire were given and the officer administered the coup de grace with his pistol. Executions were carried out a dawn because it was a quiet time with no onlookers.


Among many cases, one is cited as cause célèbre by various pressure groups as gross miscarriages of military justice, that of Sub Lieutenant Dyett of the Royal Navy. Sub Lieutenant Dyett had hoped to serve at sea, but in 1915 the RN had all the sea service officers that it needed, so he was posted to the Naval Division and went to France in May 1916. At the end of the Somme battles in November 1916, the Naval Division was ordered to attack along the River Ancre to the village of Beaucourt. It was standard practice for each battalion to leave out a number of officers, NCOs and men, to form a core to re-form the battalion in case of mass casualties. Sub Lieutenant Dyett was one of those nominated to stay behind and it is alleged that his commanding officer knew that Dyett was not up to the rigors of warfare. Officers picked for stay behind were regularly rotated and it happened to be Dyett’s turn. This theory is insulting to Dyett and would have caused anger and resentment among his fellow officers, if his commander considered him unfit for combat.


The Nelson Battalion’s advance became stalled and they began to take heavy casualties. Dyett and a Sub Lieutenant Truscott were ordered forward by car and then on foot to the Nelson battalion. It was getting dark and German shells were falling. Dyett became lost in the fog and came across another officer, Sub Lieutenant Fernie who was organising a column of stragglers to move them back to the front. Fernie told Dyett to join the rear of the column and prevent any of the stragglers from falling out. Dyett refused and said he was returning to Brigade Headquarters for further orders. Dyett took refuge in a dugout and refused to re-join his Battalion. Fernie subsequently reported Dyett, who was later arrested three-and-a-half miles behind the front line in the Battalion billeting area. He was tried under two charges, absenting himself from his Battalion and the lesser charge of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. It was standard practice to couple offences, so that the lesser charge could be considered if the greater wasn’t proven.


Dyett was tried in a General Court martial at Le Champ Neuf in December 1916. The President of the Court was Brigadier-General Metcalfe of the Royal Artillery, with six other field officers with extensive experience in the trenches. Dyett was defended by Sub Lieutenant Trevanion of the Hawke Battalion, a qualified solicitor. The prosecutor was Sub Lieutenant Strickland Adjutant of the Nelson Battalion. Dyett pleaded not guilty, which was mandatory in cases involving the death penalty. Dyett’s defence was straightforward in that he had merely got lost and not absented himself from the battalion. The commanding officer of the Nelson Battalion, coincidently a Lieutenant Commander Nelson, said that Dyett was a poor officer whose command of men was equally as poor. Dyett had asked for transfer to sea service on many occasions, citing that he was “of a nervous temperament and not fitted for the Front Line.”


Lieutenant Herring (yes these are the real names), was the Brigade admin officer whose task it was to re-supply the front lines. He saw Truscott struggling with the column of men and ordered Dyett to give him a hand to move them back to the front line. He gave evidence that Dyett had said to him: “I cannot take charge amongst all this chaos and disorder. I will return to Brigade for orders.” When Dyett was found in the Battalion billeting area whether he wished to re-join his unit at the front, he replied: “No, he would wait for the Battalion.


This concluded the case for the prosecution and when asked if he wished to give evidence or call on anyone, Dyett said: “I do not wish to say anything at all.” He opted not to make any defence to the charge. No medical evidence could have been called for and Dyett did not return to Brigade HQ for further orders. The Judge Advocate said the court had to decide on what orders Dyett had been given and if his nervous state when found in the Battalion billeting area would have made it impossible for him to carry out his duties. The Court Martial retired and found Dyett guilty of desertion and when he was asked if he wished to address the court, Dyett said: “There is nothing to say.”


When it reconvened, the Court Martial gave the death sentence by firing squad, with a recommendation for mercy, given Dyett’s age and lack of experience at the front. This was also recommended by the Divisional Commander, but the commander of II Corps, Lieutenant General Jacob disagreed and his opinion of the case was damning: “I see no reason why the sentence should not be carried out.” The Commander-in-Chief of the BEF confirmed the sentence on 2nd January 1917. Dyett was executed by firing squad at 07:30 on 5th January 1917.


The composition of the court and its proceedings were fair, but Dyett was young, inexperienced and unsuited to life in a wartime infantry battalion. He had been subjected to shell fire, which may well have affected his nervous state. However, he was an officer, entrusted with the lives of his men and expected to set an example to them. He did not want to be on the Western Front, but neither did millions of other men. To have spared an officer for a military crime that ORs were being executed for, would have been unthinkable. But you would have a heart of stone not to feel a degree of sympathy for Dyett and his family.


Combat stress is now recognised as a combination of acute and repeated stresses, from which mental breakdown is the only escape. Over 4,000,000 men from Britain and the Empire fought in the First World War. That so few suffered from complete mental breakdown is a testament to their inherent resilience, courage and sense of duty. We should feel a profound anger at the agents of the Left who denigrate our ancestors in such a vile and insidious manner, by suggesting that all military personnel who were executed were suffering from “shell shock.”


Much is made of the case of Herbert Burden, who was executed at 17. The minimum age to serve was 19.Burden had lied about his age to the recruiters and at no point during his court martial did he make his defence aware that he was under eighteen.


Having joined the 1st South Northumberland Fusiliers, he soon deserted, returned to London and joined the East Surrey Regiment, whom he also soon deserted. Re-joining his old battalion, he was sent to France when the army believed him to be 19 years old, and he probably fought at the Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge in May 1915. Having already gone AWOL from his unit on multiple occasions, he left his post once again the following month—he said to see a colleague in the neighbouring regiment—but was captured and accused of desertion. Found guilty, he was executed by firing squad two days later aged 17. In 2001 his case, and his image, was the basis for a memorial statue in the National Memorial Arboretum to those who had been unfairly executed by late twentieth-century standards, and five years later Burden and the other men were granted pardons by the British government.




The Shot at Dawn Memorial


This is what the section of the memorial states: The Shot at Dawn Memorial is a monument at the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, in Staffordshire, UK.


It commemorates the 309 British Army and Commonwealth soldiers executed after courts-martial for desertion and other capital offences during World War I. The memorial is to servicemen executed by firing squad during the First World War.


It is alleged that soldiers accused of cowardice were often not given fair trials; they were often not properly defended, and some were minors.


Blown Perphery


Aug. 2018



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Well I don't really like the story but it needs to be told.


Australian soldiers were not killed like this. We have the Breaker Morant saga to thank for that. After Morant was executed in the Boer War, the parliament here decreed that in future Australians were not to be killed by pommy firing squads.



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Well I don't really like the story but it needs to be told.Australian soldiers were not killed like this. We have the Breaker Morant saga to thank for that. After Morant was executed in the Boer War, the parliament here decreed that in future Australians were not to be killed by pommy firing squads.

I didn't know that Bruce,. . but I'm Bloody glad to hear it.



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