Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War, by Peter Barham

A cruel legacy of ingratitude and insult
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The Independent Culture

The Great War has inspired one of the great book titles. "You don't have to be mad to fight here, but it helps" should have been the recruiting slogan in 1914. Some recruits actually joined up to escape being locked up. Peter Barham commemorates the mental casualties among the cannon fodder. As opposed to the unforgotten lunatics, whose ranks include literary lions like Siegfried Sassoon, not to mention crazed commanders like Lord Kitchener.

The Great War has inspired one of the great book titles. "You don't have to be mad to fight here, but it helps" should have been the recruiting slogan in 1914. Some recruits actually joined up to escape being locked up. Peter Barham commemorates the mental casualties among the cannon fodder. As opposed to the unforgotten lunatics, whose ranks include literary lions like Siegfried Sassoon, not to mention crazed commanders like Lord Kitchener.

To paraphrase Blackadder, it was not the mark of a totally rational character to march - or tell others to march - slowly across no-man's-land into the sights of enemy machine-gunners. If your body survived but your brain didn't, your best bet was to be officer class.

Barham's substantial volume concentrates on the other ranks. Officers were more likely to receive the respectable diagnosis of "shell shock", while privates were classed as "lunatics" or, worse, "pauper lunatics" under the control of the "head imbecile attendant". Soldiers maddened in the trenches could escape the authorities mucking up the war, only to end up in the hands of authorities mucking up their peace. When the military took over a psychiatric hospital, it must have felt to patients like a case of the inmates running the asylum.

While there would have been no question about a veteran who lost a limb on the Western Front, a chap who lost his marbles gave bureaucrats room to wriggle out of obligations. One widow received her dead husband's belongings, only to discover that six shillings had been appropriated from his cash as a charge for the night he spent in the infirmary. In 1923 another wife, of a wounded and disturbed gunner with a helpful diagnosis of "feeblemindedness", applied for an allowance for his care; it took her 40 years.

In the same year, this sensitive treatment was dished out to a man originally diagnosed as suffering from manic depressive psychosis. The Ministry of Pensions declared that, since he made no particular complaints at his last examination, his compensation was being snatched away. It took him until 1968 - 45 years - to claw it back.

Similar cases, any one of which would provide the germ of an entire Beryl Bainbridge novel, explode out of almost every page. Barham does find some improvements. The "workhouse infirmary" became the less insulting "local infirmary", the "pauper lunatic" the "local patient". Still, when a medical expert can today be wheeled on to assert that victims of Gulf War Syndrome are making it up, we have a little way to go.

I was puzzled by the quotations from Ulysses which grace the chapter headings and by the somewhat elusive captions. Otherwise, this is a powerful offering at the Tomb of the Unknown Lunatic.

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