Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Diagnosing Shell Shock in Literary Representations of the Military Death Penalty after World War I

NMAguide, “Shot at Dawn Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum,” 2009, image of statue
Fig. 1. NMAguide, “Shot at Dawn Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum,” 2009, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This short essay examines how, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, a range of British publications inflected by the diagnostic logic of psychoanalysis helped to facilitate a cultural processing of the widespread use of the military death penalty. Freudian thought, transmitted by the work of the famous shell-shock doctor W. H. R. Rivers, influenced the representations of the military death penalty in an impressive array of popular texts from various genres, including A. P. Herbert’s novel The Secret Battle (1919), the Labour MP Ernest Thurtle’s testimony pamphlet Shootings at Dawn (1920), and A. D. Gristwood’s novella The Coward (1927). Rivers argued for the importance of psychoanalysis in understanding the war and its social impact, asserting that Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious “must be taken into account, not only by the physician, but by the teacher, the politician, the moralist, the sociologist, and every other worker who is concerned with the study of human conduct.”[1] In this essay, I will consider the effect of Freud’s theory on writers, studying the representation of the combined legal and medical issue of the military death penalty across a sample of fiction and life writing. The diverse texts I will investigate all take the form of a case history, focusing on the serving soldier and examining how his psychology is affected by the threat of the military death penalty, whether as the victim, as a participant in the firing squad, or merely as a witness. Despite the significant influence of the idea of shell shock on their representation of the injustice of the military death penalty, the authors I am considering often resist using medical language, choosing instead to deploy an emotional lexicon to drive home the affective force of the “coward” soldier’s predicament. In short, we see simultaneously a reliance on and a resistance to diagnosis manifest in these texts.

Court Martial and the Mind

In his influential essay “Freud’s Psychology of the Unconscious” (1917), Rivers highlights the wide implications of Freud’s theories of repression and the unconscious for a study of “human conduct” including criminal responsibility. Rivers argued especially that war neurosis was caused by the repression of the natural impulse to flee the battlefield. Rivers’s popularization of Freud considers the intersection of treatment and punishment in cases of the military death penalty, as behaviors that were symptoms of shell shock might easily become capital crimes subject to court martial. Indeed, Rivers’s work is in many ways a special case in its understanding of the way diagnosis was shaped by military discipline: it was informed by his association with Siegfried Sassoon, who had been given a choice of a court martial or hospital treatment after he refused to return to service in 1917.[2] Current scholarly estimates hold that there was roughly one military execution for every week of the war for offences including cowardice, desertion, mutiny, murder, disobedience, assisting the enemy, and striking a senior officer. Desertion was the most common offence for which death sentences were passed; Teresa Iacobelli suggests that cowardice was a rarer charge because it was a more subjective crime and thus harder to prove for the authorities.[3] About 11% of the death sentences passed were carried out, with the other sentences being commuted. This proportion appears to have been a deliberate military strategy. As historian Gerard Oram argues, this percentage consituted a “‘safe’ level politically speaking” for the army to demonstrate its ability to show mercy and understanding (Oram, Military Executions, 130). Fellow historian Peter Leese identifies three schools of thought regarding medical approaches to diagnosing and treating shell shock. One school was driven by the Army’s needs, designed to manage the soldier, if not to directly punish him, and focused on physical causes of military offences mixed with ideas borrowed from criminology (heredity, degeneracy); another school was directly influenced by psychoanalysis and provided talk therapy; and a third “pragmatic” school maintained “both progressive and disciplinary wings.”[4]

All the authors examined in this essay are closest to Leese’s “pragmatic school”: internalizing insights from psychoanalysis, but refusing to use them in a directly diagnostic manner. These texts do not interrogate the value of concepts of military crime per se but simply question the use of capital punishment in these cases where responsibility appears to be impaired. Instead, the refusal of straightforward narratives about shell-shock allows these authors to explore a more complex version of the influence of psychoanalysis on ideas of trauma and criminal responsibility, which applies beyond a wartime situation and informs broader understandings of civilian capital crime in the interwar period. In Herbert’s novel The Secret Battle (1919), for example, the narrator directly uses the language of “battle-psychology” in examining the chain of events that led his friend Harry Penrose to be executed by his own men after being court-martialed for desertion.[5] Herbert’s novel is a fictive version of real court-martial case, the execution of Temporary Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett in 1917. Herbert, who also drew on his experience as a Court Martial Officer, deliberately avoids using the word “shell shock” in his response novel, even though Dyett had been executed despite a diagnosed history of shell shock which had long preceded his offence. Still, Herbert is clearly also diagnostic and responsive to psychoanalysis, with the form of the novel presented directly as a case history. Indeed, Herbert’s narrator is entirely focused on how the life history of Penrose led to his execution:

I am going to write down some of the history of Harry Penrose, because I do not think full justice has been done to him, and because there must be many other young men of his kind who flung themselves into this war at the beginning of it, and have gone out of it after many sufferings with the unjust and ignorant condemnation of their fellows (Secret Battle, 1).

The diagnostic language of shell shock is likewise absent from Thurtle’s nonfiction pamphlet Shootings at Dawn (1920) where he publishes witness statements about the effect of military executions on their war experience as a form of testimony (or “plain, unvarnished tales,” as he puts it).[6] Those executed are instead described in the witness statements in euphemistic, conversational language such as “a bundle of nerves,” reflecting the popular understanding of mental illness shown by the witnesses themselves (Thurtle, Shootings, 4).

Compared to the sketches of real cases discussed by Thurtle, or Penrose’s unconscious slide into unsoldierly behaviour through nervous exhaustion in Herbert, Gristwood designs the protagonist of his apparently entirely fictional 1927 novella, The Coward, to be indefensible unless his behavior is explained in pathological terms. However, despite the even wider dissemination of the idea of shell-shock by the late 1920s, Gristwood’s mode of characterization still engages emotional terms, including “desperation,” “shame,” and “pride,” rather than medical or psychological language.[7] Indeed, Gristwood’s unnamed narrator has internalized the criminalization of S. I. W. and knows the potential penalty for his act:

A self-inflicted wound on Active Service is equivalent to desertion in the face of the enemy, and the Army has little mercy on deserters. For discipline’s sake the practice must be strongly checked, and the punishment is death. More than once I had seen advertised in Routine Orders the fate of a poor wretch shot for this very crime (The Coward, 152).[8]

Gristwood’s detailed depiction of his protagonist’s mental state, as in texts by both Herbert and Thurtle, implies shell shock but refrains from directly diagnosing it. For example, the protagonist believes that “the uncanny spell of calmness that possessed” him in planning to shoot himself in the hand suggests that “I cannot have been entirely responsible for my actions” (152–53). Gristwood’s unnamed character’s internalized acceptance that he deserves the death penalty (“the coward is a coward still, and nothing can exonerate him”) prevents him from processing his war trauma and seeking an exculpatory diagnosis or treatment long after the war (188). This manifests itself in dreams and fantasies of punishment and execution: “Terrified by my dread of the death penalty, night after night I dreamed that the worst had befallen me. I pictured to myself the firing-party and the word of command; the crash of the volley and ‘the nothing all things end in’” (185–86). Indeed, Gristwood’s whole story is occasioned by his character’s self-destructive need to confess his crime to a stranger in a railway carriage who might betray him to the authorities, reflecting psychoanalytic principles such as the repetition compulsion.

Potential for Reform?

I have argued that these texts represent but refuse to explicitly diagnose figures who apparently grapple with shell shock. However, each author mobilizes this shared resistance to articulate surprisingly different attitudes towards the military death penalty and the need for reform in capital cases. Indeed, we might say that Thurtle and Gristwood diagnose injustice, while Herbert suggests reform. Thurtle’s pamphlet directly indicts the military death penalty through claims about its effects on witnesses. Gristwood’s novella is more oblique than Thurtle’s but still appears to represent the exercize of military justice as nightmarish and psychologically harmful. Herbert’s novel, meanwhile, demonstrates restraint in its representation of the execution scene in a way that appears to minimise its traumatic effect:

The thing was done seven mornings later, in a little orchard behind the Casquettes’ farm.

The Padre told me he stood up to them very bravely and quietly. Only he whispered to him “For God’s sake make them be quick.” That is the worst torment of the soldier from beginning to end—the waiting.

He was shot by his own men, by men of D Company (Secret Battle, 215).

This dispassionate passage sharply contrasts Thurtle’s testimony pamphlet, where witnesses register extreme physical and emotional reactions to the military death penalty, including anger, tears, nightmares, vomiting, and fainting among witnesses and the firing party, suggesting that participation in these executions could become an additional cause of shell shock and war trauma. For example, one witness in Thurtle’s pamphlet records that “we stood in silence for what seemed hours, although only minutes,” while “one of the Yorkshires fainted, the strain was that great” (Shootings, 5, 7). Two testimony letters that Thurtle quotes from directly use the language of murder (6). In another, two men from the firing party who fail to shoot at the condemned man are eventually court martialled themselves for disobeying orders but “found medically unfit” (8). Thurtle and his witnesses diagnose court martial culture as a major cause of war neurosis within and beyond the conflict.

Parlimentary debates suggest that Thurtle’s accounts of the military death penalty were widely felt to have been sensationalized, but they are in fact very similar to unpublished (and thus non-polemic) witness accounts. For example, preserved in the Edwin Dyett Home Office file is a moving unpublished account of his death, in which its injustice is measured by its traumatic effect on those involved: “the eyewitness states that his end was ‘an inspiration to those present’ so much so that two officers absolutely collapsed and had to be medically treated.”[9] By contrast, Herbert’s execution scene is in keeping with his final refusal to diagnose political and social ills beyond the portrayal of war neurosis:

This book is not an attack on any person, on the death penalty, or on anything else, though if it makes people think about these things, so much the better. I think I believe in the death penalty—I do not know. But I did not believe in Harry being shot.

That is the gist of it; that my friend Harry was shot for cowardice—and he was one of the bravest men I ever knew (Secret Battle, 215–16).

Herbert’s narrator retreats a little from the novel’s implied wider message to focus on the uniqueness and haunting quality of Penrose’s case.


To some extent, and certainly compared to the other texts examined here, The Secret Battle appears calculated to appeal to authorities who have the power to enact legal reform, rather than merely to shock public opinion with their textual diagnoses of injustice. Bolstering this reading is the fact that, in 1928, at the height of the parliamentary debates on reforms of the military death penalty, Winston Churchill contributed a preface to The Secret Battle (included in subsequent editions), which asserts that the book is “one of those cries of pain wrung from the fighting troops by the prolonged pain and measureless torment through which they passed; and like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon should be read in each generation, so that men and women may rest under no illusion about what war means.”[10] Although Herbert’s novel did ultimately have a powerful campaigning effect, his use of understatement and ambiguity meant that the text can still be read as affectively, but not as ethically, powerful.[11] Nevertheless, within the framework of the text, though less intensely than in Thurtle’s polemic or Gristwood’s novella, the lingering effect of Penrose’s death on the frame-narrator is a palpable sign of Herbert’s message that the military death penalty is a cause, and not just a symptom, of war neurosis.

The reception history of The Secret Battle and The Coward reflects divisions within a wider literary culture about battle psychology and the military death penalty. For example, in the Times Literary Supplement, the reviewer linked the book with “medical research” and the “psychoanalytical treatment of shell-shock” suggesting that Herbert’s novel was the first war chronicle to deal with “the many subtle ways that fear has of getting at a man” from a “scientific understanding.”[12] At the same time, the reviewer struggled with the wider implications of the novel that I have identified, claiming Herbert “has left no stone unturned to ensure the full measure of calamity,” especially in the feud depicted between Penrose and the man who accuses him (Morris, “Secret,” 356). And yet, the reviewer also feels that “one’s discomfort in reading the book is enhanced by the certainty that something very like it must have happened over and over again” (356). By contrast, the more shocking nature of Gristwood’s representation of shell-shock in the shadow of the death penalty is reflected in the fact that although it was quite successful in terms of sales (it sold about 2,100 copies), his publishers decided in 1929 not to keep the book in print. This decision perhaps responds to the harsh judgement of hostile reviewers such as the individual in the New Statesman who asserts that “Mr. Gristwood’s propagandistic journalese certainly does not deserve to be read—by future generations.”[13] Such hostile reviewers were usually ex-servicemen themselves and tended to assume that The Coward and The Somme might be based on real experiences: for them, the book spoke for “the trench malingerer, who, unless silenced, could unman his comrades” (Cecil, Flowers, 106). Cyril Falls, in his 1930 War Books, expresses anxiety that Gristwood “does not tell us that he sympathises with this person, but he allows no hint of reprobation or contempt to escape him.”[14]

In short, these fictive psychological cases studies of war trauma challenged reviewers’ beliefs about the natural justice of the military death penalty. Penrose was felt to be too sympathetic to be executed, while Gristwood’s narrator was too unsympathetic not to be. These writers and the literary culture surrounding them also demonstrate repression, resistance, and ambivalence in diagnosing the biopolitical problem of complex mental states affecting criminal responsibility. Postwar reports examining a selection of cases of the execution of minors found that shell shock defences were rejected in around a third of cases.[15] Similarly, the report by the 1922 government committee on shell shock asserted that even though military rules were justified, “some ‘injustices’ had been done in the early years of the war when psychoneurotic soldiers might have been court-martialed and executed for cowardice before the phenomenon was understood.”[16] This report strongly suggested that the shell-shocked soldier might not be criminally responsible. Historian Ted Bogacz suggests that the report offered a direct line to the eventual abolition of the death penalty for cowardice in 1930.[17] Ultimately, the form of diagnosis present in the fictional texts I have examined here thus shapes a sustained cultural conversation about the effect of shell shock and war trauma on soldiers’ criminal responsibility and is, I would suggest, as influential as government reports or legal judgements in influencing popular opinion.


[1] W. H. R. Rivers, “Freud’s Psychology of the Unconscious,” The Lancet vol. 189, no. 4894 (1917): 912–914, 912.

[2] See Gerard Oram, Military Executions During World War I, (Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 62.

[3] See Teresa Iacobelli, Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War (Vancouver: UBCPress, 2013), 24.

[4] Peter Leese, ‘“Why Are They Not Cured?’ British Shellshock Treatment During the Great War,” in Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870–1930, ed. Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 205–222, 218.

[5] A. P. Herbert, The Secret Battle (London: Methuen, 1936), 71.

[6] Ernest Thurtle, M.P., Shootings at Dawn: The Army Death Penalty at Work ([London]: Victoria House Printing Co., n. d.), 3.

[7] A. D. Gristwood, The Coward (1927), in The Somme including also The Coward (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), 117–189.

[8] Perhaps because it also suggested shell shock, while 3,894 men in the British Army were convicted of causing a self-inflicted wound (SIW) none appear to have been executed even though it was technically a capital offence.

[9] 2/Lieutenant Edwin Leopold Arthur DYETT Royal Naval Division, 1914–1922, WO339/87122, The National Archives, Kew.

[10] Winston Churchill, introduction to The Secret Battle, v.

[11] For example, Churchill voted against the 1930 bill removing the death penalty for the offences of cowardice and desertion. (Churchill did not speak in the debate, but is listed among the “Noes” in the parliamentary record). See CLAUSE 5—(Abolition of death penalty in certain cases).

[12] R. O. Morris, “The Secret Battle,” review in The Times Literary Supplement no. 911, July 3, 1919, 356.

[13] Hugh Cecil, Flowers of Battle: How Britain Wrote the Great War (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1996), 101.

[14] Cyril Falls, War Books: A Critical Guide (London: Peter Davies, 1930), 276.

[15] See Oram, Military Executions, 62.

[16] Caroline Cox, “Invisible Wounds: The American Legion, Shell-Shocked Veterans, and American Society, 1919–1924,” in Traumatic Pasts, 280–306, 291.

[17] See Ted Bogacz, “War Neurosis and Cultural Change in England, 1914–22: The Work of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into ‘Shell Shock,’” Journal of Contemporary History 24, no. 2 (1989): 227–256, 250. The committee report also appeared in the same year as the Ronald True murder case, in which a veteran was reprieved on the grounds of insanity, and which would also throw the civilian death penalty into question.