By: David Rilley-Harris, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH)


A German soldier, not cowardly, but incapacitated (Picture:


Before the First World War (1914-1918) combat had revolved largely around cavalry and infantry tactics, but by the beginning of the twentieth century the effects of the industrial revolution had wholly arrived on the battlefield. The First World War saw massed artillery, mass-produced machine guns, and aircraft that could strafe you from the sky. Survival meant digging into the earth itself and spending much of your time under cover from incessant bombardment. The moment a soldier would be called to expose themself and move forward into battle was an order more difficult to obey than it had been before, especially considering that the First World War depended heavily on civilian conscripts. Refusal to follow orders into battle had traditionally been dealt with as cowardice and the penalty was death. The desperate situation of the First World War allowed for no leeway in this regard even though psychological science had made enough progress to explain the difference between ill-discipline and crippling neurosis. The war became synonymous with the term “shellshock” which was used as a medical term to describe psychologically incapacitated soldiers as suffering from the mental effect of shelling rather than simply being cowards. Today it is understood that the concussive effects of the shelling would have been causing concussions and micro tears in brain tissue, but at the time the soldiers were simply observed as having no obvious head injury and their reports of symptoms associated with brain injury were put done to psychological effect.

In the British military during the First World War hundreds of soldiers were nonetheless executed for cowardice and related charges. Some had charged bravely into battle on previous occasions but the officers in command were under pressure to demonstrate that they were maintaining discipline on the front lines. In one close call with dire injustice, a First World War soldier with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was due for execution for “shamefully casting away his arms in the face of the enemy” at the Battle of Cateau in August 1914. The reality was that his bayonet had been entangled in barbed wire and an officer who had observed as much was able to confirm this. If that officer had died in the battle, the soldier would have been executed. The interwar period brought very little time to properly reevaluate policies around “cowardice”. Some countries were economically ruined, and others were concerned over their lack of preparedness for a potential new war. In France some families were compensated for over-zealous executions of their relatives in the First World War, but Britain saw no such response. Psychology was respected as a guide in distinguishing between cowardice or ill-discipline, and involuntary incapacity. The problem was that they are both born from fear, making a neat framework from which to operate difficult to design. One compromise that was considered was to give benefit of the doubt to soldiers who had already proven their bravery in previous engagements. This was a pragmatic improvement but failed to acknowledge that shellshock had shown to develop over time and required treatment to maintain a soldier’s battle effectiveness. To, at least, not kill the soldier was a small first step. A real step forward would be provided during the Second World War (1939-1945) where many of the new officers had been in the trenches of the First World War and had personally witnessed and experienced the effect of modern war on conscript armies. Instead of allowing for calls to continue with death penalties for “cowardice”, the new crop focused on improving leadership, training, and techniques in battlefield motivation.

The Second World War saw improvements where conditions made them possible, but the focus was still on viewing battle stress as a function of each soldier’s characteristics before they entered the service. There were improvements in psychological evaluations of soldiers entering service, improvements in using training techniques to better prepare soldiers for the shock of war, and a little more leeway was given to soldiers on the battlefield to give them time to gather themselves and re-engage. The general idea was still that soldiers needed to be made such that they do not faulter psychologically from shellshock, which was by then being referred to as “combat stress reaction”. In the Royal Airforce air crews and pilots too afraid to re-enter combat were said to “lack moral fibre”. Shame was widely used to try and motivate soldiers but, when it worked, the gains were temporary, and the long-term costs were significant. War-traumatised veterans after the Second World War added to a growing culture of war-weariness, and both volunteers and conscripts became increasingly difficult to secure. Nonetheless, the Second World War saw the focus on battle stress begin to shift from the precondition of the soldier to the management of the soldier in service and in combat. Psychologists treating veterans committed to mental health institutions after the war made progress in demonstrating that incapacity years after the war showed that cowardice was not the primary factor. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the most common references in society to battle stress focused on the life of soldiers after retirement from the military in the form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


A Twenty-First Century Cartoon depicting PTSD (Picture:

The end of the Cold War near the end of the twentieth century saw a sharp reduction in conscription with countries relying more on volunteer professional militaries. By then there were already substantial changes in training service members to prepare for and handle psychological stress on the battlefield. Soldiers are taught to avoid situations that can trigger psychological stress such as focusing too much on the faces of dead soldiers. They are taught breathing exercises and are endowed with self-respect for their skills, bravery, and willingness to serve. Service members are also guided into forming strong bonds with their colleagues providing a focus on protecting your friend and focusing less on themselves. Service members are also exposed in training to similar stresses that they will encounter in combat. Some of these methods, however, can cause trauma in training itself. Service members speak with dark humour about being trauma bonded to their colleagues. While tremendous advances had been made in psychological treatment and preparation since the First World War, the twentieth century ended having failed to notice that the combat stress reactions were not simply psychological.

During USA deployments into Iraq and Afghanistan in the twenty-first century, one in five soldiers deployed were found to have suffered brain injuries from concussive blasts. These injuries have been heavily corelated to cases of PTSD. In 2006, Britain gave posthumous pardons to the soldiers they had executed in the World Wars for cowardice or similar charges.

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