Pardon on medical grounds unsound
by Dr. Leo van Bergen

New Leo van Bergen - Before My Helpless Sight Suffering,
 Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-1918 

Contrary to most books in the field this study does not focus on one single issue - such as venereal disease, plastic surgery, shell-shock or the military medical service - but takes a broad view on wounds and illnesses across both sides of the conflict. Drawing on British, French, German and Dutch sources it shows the consequences of modern warfare on the human individuals caught up in it, and the way it influences our thinking on 'humanitarian' activities.


Pardon on medical grounds unsound
After many years of persistent protests, the British government is finally forced to rehabilitate those British soldiers (many) and officers (a few) who, because of cowardice in the face of the enemy or desertion, were executed during World War I, or in some cases even afterwards. Let me first state that I am not one of those historians who think this is useless, or even unjustified. On the contrary: it is very useful, and fully justified.

Of course, it is the historian’s job to point at ‘other times and other values’, at ‘different circumstances’. And in his scientific work, his main and probably only job is to describe and explain, not to judge. But this does not imply that as a private person he is not entitled to have opinions on what is being described and explained. All this, however, does not imply that the reason behind the pardon – to wit, those involved were all ‘disturbed’ – is sound. Of course, this reason fits perfectly well in the current medicalisation of social problems: let’s call it a disease, and everybody is happy.

For a start: not 306 soldiers were condemned to death, but 349 soldiers were brought to death. 3080 soldiers heard the sentence ‘death penalty’. The 306 are ‘just’ the ones who were actually executed because of desertion or cowardice. And even this is questionable. For desertion 268 were shot, for cowardice: 18, leaving post: 7, disobedience: 5, hitting a superior officer: 5, mutiny: 4, sleeping on duty: 2, throwing down arms: 2, violence: 1. (Putkowski and Sykes, Shot at dawn.)

I admit I am not a mathematical genius, but how to get from these figures to a total of 306, I honestly do not know. But that is not the main point. That point is reached when answering questions like: who decided who was actually brought to death, and why? Where all those other 2600 convicted soldiers mad as well?

It is a fact is that the decision who was shot at dawn, and who was not, was highly arbitrary. But even this is not the main problem. That is, that a general pardon on psychological grounds is medically unsound, historically incorrect, and, in so far as the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is mentioned, even completely anachronistic.

PTSD is not older than 25 years and can only be diagnosed after a prolonged examination of a living patient. Hence, diagnosing PTSD in a group of executed soldiers from the beginning of the twentieth century solely because they were accused of desertion or cowardice, and of whom, moreover, hardly any medical records or even none at all exist, in fact is utterly ridiculous.

Even in the case of Harry Farr, who supposedly was clearly shell-shocked and for this reason never should have been send back to the front – even though sometimes this was part of the treatment –, it is doubtful if he really was shell shocked.(1)

But even if he was, than it is of course a very sad, but not a typical case. Many of the soldiers involved will have suffered from some kind of neurosis, but they were never diagnosed neurotic before their execution, let alone treated. Officially, medical inspection was indeed part of the trial, but in practice very often there was no doctor present. And if there was one, not seldom he did not have any knowledge of psychological problems at all. Or he was, in view of his military career, more interested in supporting the judicial officers than the soldier on trial.

But there were many soldiers too, who had no psychological or neurological problems at all. Some of them simply were too scared to go over the top, but anxiety - and certainly the perfectly justified and understandable anxiety of soldiers in the trenches of the Somme and Ypres - is not the same as cowardice. And it certainly is something else than madness; quite the contrary, I would say.

Others, again fully understandable, thought obeying given order was nothing but a kind of suicide, be it in a heroic jacket. They jumped into the very first protecting shell hole they could find, which mostly did not take very long. Next, there were those who refused to obey orders because it would bring not only themselves, but also others in mortal danger, without any chance of military success.

And, of course, there were those who were picked out of their group more or less ad random because this group had failed to reach its objective, an objective pointed out on a map miles behind the front. They had fought, but were shot nonetheless, as an example, ‘pour encourager les autres’, as the French put it. ‘More or less’ ad random, because some men were accused of cowardice, solely because the officers did not like him. Again: no cowardice, no madness.

And last but not least, of course, there were those who, completely of sound mind, began to see the war or the way it was fought, as unjustified or inhuman. They as well were convicted because of cowardice and sentenced to death – unless they were decorated officers listening to the name of Siegfried Sassoon. He was – how ironic – not disturbed at all, but nevertheless sentenced to an involuntary stay in a psychiatric hospital, to save his life. Again: this had nothing to do with madness. Quite the contrary.

The truth of the matter is, that all these hundreds of executed men have hundreds of different stories, and because all those different stories can never be retold again in all their details, a general pardon is justified. The medical reasoning behind it, however, is idiotic.

The pardon is justified because human beings should not be sentenced to death just because they refuse to walk into a hail of machine-gun bullets, for whatever reason – something the British acknowledged already in the Inter War years. For this reason, in World War II men were only shot for criminal offences such as murdering an officer.

The pardon is justified, because many of the executed even in this sense had not been ‘cowards’, but were set out to be a horrific example by officers who themselves often had never been in the trenches. And most of all, the pardon is justified because the military legal system that had them convicted, was unsound and partial, even by the norms, standards and rules of France and Belgium, 1914-1918.

But although the political reasons behind the pardon are perfectly understandable, a general pardon on psychological grounds is not justified. It does an injustice to those who were indeed neurotic. It does an injustice to those who were of completely sound mind. It does an injustice to those who only had to encourage the others.

Dr. Leo van Bergen - email:
l.vanbergen@vumc.nl  - Medical historian of the VUmc-Amsterdam, Netherlands, department of Medical Humanities (Metamedica).

(1) I want to thank Edgar Jones, Professor of the History of Medicine and Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry and King's Centre for Military Health Research, for handing over information on the case of Harry Farr.


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