Remembering
1914 - 2022

The Marston Lads

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'Mental Health & The First World War'
I was at junior school when my grandfather came to stay with us in the 1970s. In those days we could go to the shop with a note and get almost anything, and almost daily my grandfather would write me such a note, and off I trotted to the shop just a few minutes away. I could hardly refuse, I was frightened of him, and I will admit at the time of not really liking him. He never smiled and he found no issue striking out at either myself or my sisters for even the smallest misdemeanour.

When I arrived at the shops and handed over the note and money, the majority of the time it was to collect a half bottle of rum. He always slept with the light on, I never understood why and when I asked my mother she just said 'he preferred the light on'.  I knew he had served in both World Wars, in the Home Guard in WW2, but he never spoke about WW1. He lived with us for just over eight years before he passed away.

Fast forward 40 years, and I have now downloaded his war records from the First World War. Two years and 300 days he had served with The Machine Gun Corps, wounded twice in the back with shrapnel. Fought in The Somme and Passchendaele, little wonder he drank so heavily and slept with the light on. For a number of years, I carried the guilt about the feelings I had as a child.

In 2015, I was able to attend The Last Post Ceremony at The Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium, the very gate my grandfather would have walked through 100 years before. There at The Menin Gate, I laid a wreath to his memory and unburdened myself from the guilt by apologising for the things I thought as a child which I then carried on for decades.

Soldiers who took their own lives in the First World War were
not included in the honour roll of those who died in service.

Today we are very aware of the many mental health conditions a serving soldier can suffer.


Anxiety disorders.

Depression.

Interrelationship of mental health issues.

PTSD.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Stress.

Substance use disorders.

Suicide.


Armed forces and mental health.


  • 4% reported probable post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 19.7% reported other common mental disorders.
  • 13% reported alcohol misuse.
  • Regular soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan were significantly more likely to report alcohol misuse than those not deployed.
In 1916, a young British private in northern France wrote home to his parents explaining his decision to take his own life. A survivor of the early days of the Somme, considered one of the most brutal battles of the First World War, Robert Andrew Purvis apologised to his family before praising his commanding officers and offering the remainder of his possessions to his comrades. Purvis’s surviving suicide note remains one of the only documents of its kind from the First World War.

Jane Doe - Another Company, LLC

'Wincham Man Found Drowned After Enlisting'

Taken from: The Manchester Evening News 9th April 1915
The tragic death of George Hitchen above was no isolated incident. The article tries to distance itself from suicide and the war, and in many ways, you can understand his friend Joseph Venables being protective towards him, but reading the article 100 years later, it's obvious to us now that his enlistment was the catalyst for taking his own life.
Research on suicide during this war has shown that it was not uncommon – although reporting of it was rare. For the armed forces, recognition and support for these cases has been a longstanding struggle. From 1923, the Scottish charter for the honour roll of the fallen explicitly forbade the inclusion of suicide cases, which meant that reported cases from the Second World War were also omitted from the honour roll in the Scottish National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle.

At the turn of the 20th century, suicide was often regarded as a symptom of mental illness. Cases of suicide, if recorded at all, were almost always marked as being a case of “temporary insanity”. Britain stood at the forefront of treatment for conflict-related mental illness as the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh became famous for treating shell-shocked soldiers.


The hospital evolved to advance the fledgling understanding of conflict-related psychosis and specialised in practical recovery techniques including sports, model-making, writing, photography and the “talking cure” pioneered by psychologist William Rivers.

Due to the stigma, controversy and inflammatory nature of the topic, discussions surrounding mental health and suicide in the British military were limited for much of the 20th century. Victor Gregg, a serviceman in the Second World War, recounted in an interview in 2015 how psychological aftercare for demobilised men in 1945 was non-existent, lamenting, “My brain was filled with images of suffering that were to haunt me for the next 40 years… The final gift from a grateful country was a civilian suit, a train ticket home and about £100 of back-service pay.”

Sixty-four years later, fortunately much has changed. At the turn of the 21st century, both the military and governments in the UK have come to recognise the issue of military-related suicide.


But despite the increase in mental health awareness and support campaigns for both serving soldiers and veterans over the past two decades, concerns over deaths continue. The Ministry of Defence spends £22m a year on mental healthcare for veterans, with a further £6m annually for support within the NHS. But military charities argue that this is not enough – particularly as focused statistical recording and analysis of veteran suicide cases only began in earnest after 2001.


In March 2019, Scottish warrant officer Robert McAvoy, a veteran of 20 years service, took his own life. The following month 18-year-old Highlander Alistair McLeish died by suicide at Catterick Garrison in York. These tragedies are by no means unique.


In 2018, research by a Scottish newspaper demonstrated that a former member of the forces takes their own life in Scotland every six days. This prompted the Scottish mental health minister Clare Haughey to publicly pledge closer consideration of the mental healthcare of Scottish soldiers and veterans.


Concerns over the suicides of 71 British veterans and serving personnel in 2018 led UK defence secretary, Tobias Ellwood, to tell ITV News, “I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry that they feel the armed forces, NHS and government have let them down.” This was not an admission of responsibility for a lack of duty of care. It was a poor excuse for an apology which undercut the severity of the issue and role of the establishment within it, by insinuating that the “lack of support given” was a matter of perception. However, Ellwood also admitted: “We must improve.”


Military service and veteran suicide are not new issues, but there are crucial conversations to be had about the subject publicly, politically, socially and medically. Claiming there is a suicide “epidemic” would be an exaggeration as the numbers do not support that kind of term, but the issue remains pertinent and in need of public attention.

Bluntly, men and women have died, are dying and will continue to die if society does not examine the issue of military suicide.


Only through open discussion, active research and recognition of service and veteran mental health-related deaths can these tragedies be prevented in the future, my issue is it's taken 100 years for action to be taken.


The veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress is available 24 hours a day on 0800 138 1619 for veterans and their families; 0800 323 444 for serving personnel and their families; via text on 07537 404719; or at www.combatstress.org.uk.