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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