Disgrace of shell shock shootings

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The casualties on the Western Front were terrible and the cause of much anguish at home but every cloud has a silver lining.

War stimulates innovation and improvement in other ways. One field that saw a massive leap forward was in what we would now call “trauma surgery”.

There was a good system of forward aid posts, field hospitals and evacuation, but at first when the flood of wounded arrived the doctors were faced with wounds they had never encountered before – serious gunshot and shrapnel wounds, terrible injuries to limbs, burns and, eventually, gas victims.

Give the doctors their due, they learned quickly and soon became expert in the assessment and treatment of injuries that would have defeated them in Civvy Street.

Two years into the war, death rates from amputations and serious wounds had fallen dramatically, and eventually these new skills permeated back to hospitals at home.

However, there was one area of medicine that was deficient. The doctors soon realised they were encountering trauma they had never seen before.

It puzzled them when seemingly healthy and unharmed soldiers began to filter back from the front line who were obviously totally unhinged and incapable of functioning.

This was given the generic name of “shell shock” and was a result of exposure to massive bombardment for weeks on end.

Something similar had been noted in the early days of the navy.

Men were sometimes killed by the close passage of heavy shot but hadn’t a mark on their bodies.

Shell Shock was different. It didn’t kill, but rendered the victim useless.

At first, higher command didn’t recognise this and put it down to cowardice. Many men were forced to carry on, eventually broke and were shot at the front for cowardice.

Three hundred and six British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed for desertion during the Great War.

At one point, the British General Staff took the Australians to task for not shooting enough deserters. The Aussie general said he thought the Bosch were killing enough already without him helping by shooting his own men.

Britain was one of the last countries to pardon these victims of shell shock and, to this date, none of their names appear on any British war memorial.

As late as 1993, John Major said that pardoning the “deserters” would be an insult to those who died honourably on the battlefield and that everyone was tried fairly.

In 2007, the Armed Forces Act 2006 was passed allowing the victims to be pardoned but even then, only grudgingly, as it said that this didn’t mean the original offence couldn’t stand.

The strange thing is that as far as I know, no officers were shot.

If you were an officer, you got the benefit of treatment in a special hospital, usually for “lack of moral fibre”.

All war is cruel, some parts are more cruel than others and the treatment of the “other ranks” was a disgrace.