One day early in the First World War, an inexperienced young doctor serving with the Royal Fusiliers examined a sergeant who was ‘out of sorts’. The man had a reputation for being imperturbable on patrol, but now he sat in a billet in Armentières staring at the fire, unshaven, slovenly dressed and silent. The doctor could find nothing physically wrong but gave him permission to rest. The following day, when everyone else had gone up the line, the sergeant blew his head off. ‘I thought little of this at the time,’ the doctor wrote later. ‘It seemed a silly thing to do.’
Three years at war in the trenches made the physician Charles McMoran Wilson see things differently. The sergeant’s suicide came back to haunt him. The slow build-up of the doctor’s own fear during a year in the Ypres salient under heavy shelling, followed by participation in the Battle of the Somme, made him realize that he had been unaware of the nature of combat exhaustion. He had failed to understand the tricks war played on the mind.
The study of the courage needed to control fear became an obsession. ‘What was happening in men’s minds? How were they wearing? It was my business as a doctor to find answers to such questions in time to rest a soldier who was not wearing well.’ The result was the first book analysing the psychological nature of courage in combat, The Anatomy of Courage.
The author went on to become one of the most prominent doctors in Great Britain in the twentieth century. Charles Wilson was the longest-serving president of the Royal College of Physicians and a profound influence on the early development of the National Health Service. Prickly, idealistic and ambitious, he was appointed Winston Churchill’s personal doctor in 1940, and created Baron Moran in 1943. The Anatomy of Courage, first published in 1945, is a hybrid consisting of a diary written in the trenches, crossed with the no-nonsense observations of a uniquely
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One day early in the First World War, an inexperienced young doctor serving with the Royal Fusiliers examined a sergeant who was ‘out of sorts’. The man had a reputation for being imperturbable on patrol, but now he sat in a billet in Armentières staring at the fire, unshaven, slovenly dressed and silent. The doctor could find nothing physically wrong but gave him permission to rest. The following day, when everyone else had gone up the line, the sergeant blew his head off. ‘I thought little of this at the time,’ the doctor wrote later. ‘It seemed a silly thing to do.’Three years at war in the trenches made the physician Charles McMoran Wilson see things differently. The sergeant’s suicide came back to haunt him. The slow build-up of the doctor’s own fear during a year in the Ypres salient under heavy shelling, followed by participation in the Battle of the Somme, made him realize that he had been unaware of the nature of combat exhaustion. He had failed to understand the tricks war played on the mind. The study of the courage needed to control fear became an obsession. ‘What was happening in men’s minds? How were they wearing? It was my business as a doctor to find answers to such questions in time to rest a soldier who was not wearing well.’ The result was the first book analysing the psychological nature of courage in combat, The Anatomy of Courage. The author went on to become one of the most prominent doctors in Great Britain in the twentieth century. Charles Wilson was the longest-serving president of the Royal College of Physicians and a profound influence on the early development of the National Health Service. Prickly, idealistic and ambitious, he was appointed Winston Churchill’s personal doctor in 1940, and created Baron Moran in 1943. The Anatomy of Courage, first published in 1945, is a hybrid consisting of a diary written in the trenches, crossed with the no-nonsense observations of a uniquely perceptive medical man. Although Moran clearly possessed great affection and admiration for the soldiers around him he was careful not to let his professional mask slip. The Anatomy of Courage is enormously sympathetic and humane, but steadfastly unsentimental. Both modest and moving, exuding a quiet dignity, it has passages that stand comparison with the best in war literature. Moran the psychologist, philosopher, doctor and soldier makes profound points simply and without fuss (his first ambition had been to be a writer). There is no medical or psychological jargon, or attempt to seem clever. Radical in his insights regarding the effects of combat on the human psyche, the doctor was otherwise very much rooted in his time. He takes for granted that the men around him are naturally patriotic, accept fighting in the war as their duty, and wish to acquit themselves well. The nature of courage in war has always been a poignant subject for me. My maternal grandfather survived years at the front only to be killed weeks before the Armistice. Awarded the Military Medal in March 1918, he was allowed to return home to Dorset for a fortnight’s leave, during which time my mother was conceived. Traumatized by war, he would crawl from the bed in the grip of hideous nightmares and slither across the floor on his belly, to awake shaking and bathed in sweat. A straightforward, church-going man in his early twenties, he had been assigned a Bren gun and said that as he mowed down the enemy emerging from their trenches he felt like a murderer. My mother was seven months in the womb when he disappeared with hundreds of his comrades from the Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey), 2nd of Foot, England’s oldest infantry regiment. His body was never found and there is no grave, only a name on a panel along with thousands of other unburied dead at the Vis-en-Artois Memorial in France. I have often wondered how those who experienced the hell of trench warfare, especially the enlisted men who were not professional soldiers, found the stomach to return to it after the pleasures of leave. This was precisely Moran’s subject. Courage for him was not a display of heroics, but the quality that ordinary men employed to manage their fear. The doctor rejected entirely the idea that war turned men into savage brutes, and wrote that he saw more cruelty in a month in peacetime London than in all his time with a battalion at war. In the beginning, like most young men of the period, Moran regarded the war as high adventure. In the early weeks of combat he felt a peculiar invulnerability, which he recognized as a form of egotism. Even the first experience of heavy shelling left him unperturbed. Men were killed beside him, and he was obliged to bandage appalling wounds, but he remained strangely calm. He sat down and ate a large meal directly afterwards, feeling guilty that he could be so callous. As Moran spent more time in the trenches, and his experience of war deepened, however, he began to notice in himself a psychological process of scarring, the birth of his own fear. Keeping troops physically fit was relatively easy, but it was much more complicated to keep them psychologically sound. He quotes Thomas Hardy: ‘More life may trickle out of men through thought than through a gaping wound.’ The standard view at the time was that battle hardened men into seasoned veterans. Moran developed a contrary view. Close observation made him realize that men wore out like clothes. ‘We who practise physic are compelled to witness things which no man should be asked to face. The wounds we dress are nothing, it is when something has gone in the make-up of a man that this bloody business comes home.’ The doctor actually found it easier to tend the dying than the psychologically shattered. Soldiers close to death rarely seemed to experience fear or even pain: ‘When death is not far off, when a wounded soldier lies very still on his stretcher, nature with a kindly gesture dulls the senses, and death like a narcotic comes to steal men almost in their sleep.’ In all his time in France, he only came across one terminally wounded man who was afraid to die. Although it took doctors a long time to understand shellshock, soldiers instinctively knew when a man was psychologically shattered and not just frightened. Great compassion was shown to comrades who were finished, while those who were just plain scared were held in contempt. ‘Where pluck was concerned the men made no mistake.’ The original and radical view that Moran put forward in his book was that in war a man’s courage was his capital, and he was always spending. Everyone possessed different levels of courage which he described as their ‘credit’. Some men might only have five hundred pounds upon which to draw, others many thousands. Different aspects of war demanded various outlays, but everything had a price: the quotidian drain of life in the trenches cost; monotony cost; exposure to the elements cost; loneliness cost – while bombardment or a battle demanded serious expenditure. Men were continually drawing down on their account, no one had unlimited funds, and when a man’s capital was used up he was finished. But this did not make him a coward. Yet 18-year-olds suffering from shellshock – now termed posttraumatic stress syndrome – risked being shot for cowardice on the signature of an unsympathetic doctor. The battalion physician decided which men were to be sent back to base, and which were to remain in the trenches, and if a man ran away or broke down it was a doctor who decided whether he was genuine or a coward. (Moran never uses the word coward himself, preferring ‘shirker’.) Faced with such heavy responsibility, Moran felt that enlightened doctors needed to watch and listen carefully in order to detect oncoming collapse by the change in a soldier’s manner or speech. But to find fear in its infancy was not so easy. ‘When the life and soul of the mess becomes silent and morose, it is too late.’ The signals betraying defeat were ‘like red lamps on broken roads’: talking too much or saying nothing; tempting fate with sheer recklessness; drink. Humour helped, even the mordant variety that combat bred. Moran observed a soldier throwing a cigarette to a young man severely shaken after a bombardment: ‘Cheer up, sonny, you’ll soon be dead,’ while a man off his food was encouraged, ‘Eat up, it’s as likely as not your last.’ Cockneys, the doctor wrote, encased themselves in humour like chain mail. Being of a scientific and orderly mind, Moran divided men into types, defining four orders of soldier measured by four degrees of courage and fear. There were men who simply did not feel fear (extremely rare); men who felt fear but did not show it; men who felt fear, showed it but did their job; men who felt fear, showed it and ‘shirked’. The trouble with this classification system was that a man who belonged to one category under rifle fire might be relegated to a different one under heavy shelling – while another soldier might grow fearful during a period of prolonged idleness. And while there were ‘worthless chaps’ who showed their colours on the first day, there were also men who seemed like hopeless cases but who rose to the occasion under attack: ‘Many who had been most miserably afraid did splendid, memorable things.’ Courage, the doctor discovered, was a complicated business. At first he wondered whether stupidity was the answer. He observed, somewhat snobbishly, that certain ‘yokel’ soldiers refused to recognize danger – ‘Particularly those from Sussex’. He declared phlegm to be the ultimate gift in war and considered the emotional repression of the English to be a warlike quality: ‘We must practise a prudent economy in emotion in time of war if we are to remain sane.’ But over time Moran came to the conclusion that intelligent, imaginative men had the edge, although they paid a higher price than the stolid. Imagination controlled by character paid a dividend in terms of being able to stick it out. The acid test of a man was bombardment with high explosives, an even greater trial than going over the top. ‘It put fear in a new frame . . . told each of us things about ourselves we had not known till then.’ The first time the young doctor had been shelled he had been unafraid, but it was a different matter after a sustained period living in the trenches. When a shell next exploded close to him he saw, as the smoke cleared, that the man on his right had disappeared. Dazed, Moran was finally overcome by the fear he had spent so long trying to control. If his limbs had responded, he felt he might have run. ‘Once it had happened it was always there, and every shell that fell near the trench seemed to be but the beginning of a new cataclysm.’ The dread of bombardment remained with him after the war; he suffered recurring dreams of terrible explosions, and on country walks the wind in the trees sounded like the whistle of approaching shells. Moran was merciless in analysing the growth of his own fear, recording how it was manifested by subtle – and not so subtle – changes in behaviour. On one occasion he asked himself if it really was the cold night air that made his teeth chatter. After the Battle of the Somme – 21,000 British soldiers killed in the opening minutes, nearly 150,000 dead by the battle’s end – he was reprimanded by his commander for irritability. ‘Something happened to me then and I have never been quite the same since.’ (He does not mention his own considerable courage, or that he was awarded the Military Cross for his conduct during the battle.) By the summer of 1916 Moran began to worry about the effect of monotony on the men. When they were not under bombardment or in battle, life was dull. Universal apathy overtook the trenches and the troops sank into a torpor that bore all the characteristics of intense grief. The winter of 1917, when there was little action, seemed so interminable that men secretly even wished for shelling to break the tedium. Despite the monotony of daily life, very few people read. Men who had been voracious readers before the war abandoned the habit, and in all his time in the trenches Moran read only one book, Joseph Conrad’s Mirror of the Sea. It was boredom that drove him to write a diary, pencilled in army notebooks and on the backs of orders and envelopes. It helped keep him sane. ‘To do nothing, to be forever waiting is very difficult in trench life. There is time for reflection, and to begin thinking in this sort of existence is soon fatal.’ Moran’s attitude towards the war changed with time. The first illusion to go was the idea that war was an adventure. His mood slowly darkened to become little more than a determination to endure and finish the job. There are times in the book when he reacts to the horror and waste of war as if he were a pacifist. ‘The stupidity of it all . . . That war might be unpleasant, uncomfortable, sometimes even terrible, had always appeared possible, that it should seem ridiculous – that was new.’ By the third winter he wrote, ‘I was no longer sure of anything . . . There is a limit to the number of good men any race can furnish.’ And finally: ‘The morale of all armies breaks sooner or later.’ Afterwards he wrote, ‘The revolt that grew in my heart against this killing business – the constant fret of casualties – left wounds which even now are hardly healed.’ But he never wavered in his admiration for courage and his conviction that it was the ultimate expression of character: ‘A man of character in peace is a man of courage in war.’ He saw courage as a fixed choice between two alternatives, and believed that it alone stood between victory and ruin. Courage as a moral quality is a central theme of his book. ‘Fortitude in war has its root in morality. War is the supreme and final test of character. But it is a quality that grows to maturity in peace and is not suddenly developed on the outbreak of war. War merely exaggerates the good and evil that is in us. It cannot change, only expose.’ The book, written more than sixty years ago, continues to be read – particularly by soldiers about to go to war. A new edition has recently been published with an introduction by General Sir Peter de la Billière, one-time commander of the SAS and something of an expert on courage himself. He writes that when he was a young officer the book was his bible for disciplining fear, and he has handed it out to soldiers ever since. Like all literature from the First War, the modern reader can only recoil at the horror of it all and marvel how men stood it even for a week, let alone year after year. The Anatomy of Courage has always filled me with sadness and admiration for my grandfather, killed in his prime. As one of the few generations of Englishmen not tested by war, I have often wondered what the balance of my combat credit would have been. Would I have had the courage to endure, or would I have shirked? It remains an open question: thousands in the account, or loose change?
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 19 © Christopher Robbins 2008
About the contributor
Unmilitary himself, Christopher Robbins has nonetheless maintained a lifelong sympathy for soldiers. His own account of courage in combat, The Ravens, is the story of an élite band of USAF pilots who flew unmarked and unarmed planes in the CIA-directed secret war in Laos.