Psychological wounds and accountability in post-war Britain: a response to Kandace Bogaert

By Eilis Boyle

This post forms the first in our series of responses to Active History’s current series on Canadian First World War Pensions.

Kandace Bogaert’s blog post explores the experiences of Dennis R., a Canadian soldier who was demobilised after suffering a psychological breakdown whilst on active service during the First World War. The post discusses the importance, and the potentially devastating ramifications, of the diagnostic procedures by which psychological conditions were medically categorised, particularly in the post-war period. Whilst relapse was a very real and common threat to psychologically-wounded ex-servicemen, their entitlement to government compensation in these instances was, as Bogaert points out, often called into question by pension administrators.

The difficulties Dennis faced within the Canadian compensation system are mirrored in many of the files within the pension records housed in PIN 26 of The National Archives. These records contain the claims and appeals of shell-shocked and neurasthenic veterans whose entitlements, like Dennis’s, were denied on the grounds that their conditions could not be directly attributed to war service. Supposed constitutional weakness or psychopathic inferiority, as Bogaert’s post explores, were one avenue through which a claimant could be refused a pension. However, the pensions authorities also sought explanations for psychological breakdown in the domestic lives and socio-economic circumstances of would-be-pensioners. Domestic conflict or hardship could be used as a means of minimising or denying the effects of war trauma, as the authorities proposed that veterans’ psychological conditions would likely have developed without the war’s influence, owing to difficulties in their domestic lives.

Anxious to limit their economic responsibilities, the Ministry of Pensions also applied this logic to the claims of ex-servicemen whose conditions they had already accepted as a direct consequence of service. L.J.P, for example, had been in receipt of a twenty percent pension for neurasthenia from the time he was demobilised in 1919, ‘unfit for regimental duties’.[1] From 1920 through the next two decades L.J.P, his wife, his doctor, and other advocates appealed to the Ministry of Pensions, contesting the ‘entirely inadequate assessment of his disability both as regards his present state and for the future’. The insomnia, headaches, inability to concentrate and impairments to his memory which this pensioner suffered from, alongside his periodic attacks of acute depression, left L.J.P unable to manage the business which he owned, resulting in his wife’s assumption of nearly the entire workload. Despite multiple attestations supporting this fact, and the degenerating state of L.J.P’s condition, the Ministry consistently rejected appeals for increased financial aid. It was not possible, they argued, ‘to accept determination as due to the continuing effects of service’, but rather, they considered it likely that business concerns and ‘affairs at home – more than the effects of war service – were causing him to worry’.

The pension administrators failed, in this case, to account for the changeable nature of psychological conditions, or to recognise a link between environmental stressors and war-related illnesses. Once assigned a percentage of disablement, it could be extremely difficult for ex-servicemen to contest it, and convincing the Ministry to raise their allowances was a lengthy, arduous, and often unsuccessful task attempted by many in the post-war period.

Highlighting the inconsistent and unstable nature of the medical diagnoses which existed for psychological conditions, Bogaert’s post demonstrates how the responsibility for mental illness was often placed upon ex-servicemen in the Canadian pensions system. This, too, was often the case in the bureaucratic systems which governed compensation in Britain. Ex-servicemen whose psychological conditions developed or degenerated in the years following the Armistice struggled to prove the legitimacy of their right to treatment and compensation. Pre-existing beliefs about the origins of mental illness, combined with the general penchant towards parsimony within pensions administration, meant that personal circumstances and environmental triggers were foregrounded. The importance of these factors was often elevated above the effects of wartime experiences, and as the First World War faded further into the past, it became increasingly difficult for ex-servicemen and their advocates to convince the pension authorities to recognise the legitimacy of their claims.

[1] The National Archives, PIN 26/132. All following direct quotations are taken from the same file.