The 1917 War Pensions Amendment Act contained a chilling ‘Third Schedule’ outlining the payment ratio to a full war pension paid for certain kinds of disablement. Loss of two limbs, of both hands, or ‘very serious facial disfigurement‘, for example, qualified for the total pension. Amputation of the right arm at the shoulder joint led to an 85% entitlement while such an amputation of the left arm led to 80% entitlement. A differential entitlement for right and left hand continued throughout the schedule but men who had been certified as left-handed were entitled to the higher amount. Total deafness led to a 70% entitlement while loss of one eye was costed at a 50% entitlement. ‘Lunacy’ qualified for a 100% entitlement, if it could be proven. The Inspector General of Hospitals, Frank Hay, declared in 1919 that ‘a man of sound mind, fighting honestly for a cause, will face dangers and undergo great deprivations without losing his mental balance … It is different with those predisposed to mental disorder.’ Often, he suggested, in line with contemporary hereditarian thinking about mental illness, the latter were ‘feeble-minded persons’.
The First World War did much to break such hereditarian beliefs. The new kind of deskilled warfare – where men just had to wait in trenches before following the order to go ‘over the top’ often to their death – led to many breaking down with a new disorder, popularly known as ‘shell shock’. This manifested itself in numerous ways: various forms of paralysis, amnesia, inability to speak, tics, insomnia and horrific nightmares. Medical authorities at first feared malingering but the sheer numbers of men breaking down led to new treatments in the later years of the war. As early as May 1916, an Auckland osteopath was advertising his services for ‘shell shock’ and suggested he would treat ‘a limited number of returned servicemen’ free of charge.
Returned servicemen suffering from shell shock were first sent to Dr Frederic Truby King’s seaside cottage at Karitane. King regarded men suffering from ‘nervous prostration’ as in need of a healthy open air life in pleasant surroundings, and offered his cottage for this purpose. Supplemented by tents and a large marquee, King believed the facility led to ‘a rapid improvement’ in most cases; it became known as ANZAC House. The Wolfe Home fulfilled a similar function in Auckland and both places were considered a success. Yet just under a third of the men were committed to mental hospitals, as they were then known.
Marie Ann Roberton’s study records the case of one man who failed to improve and ended up in the Seacliff Mental Hospital a number of times between 1918 and 1923. Although his father was alive, the young man had delusions that his dead father was stealing his clothing and boots. He suffered bouts of crying and held his mouth open wide, with a stretched out tongue for long periods. Knowledge of how to treat such hysterical symptoms remained limited. The ‘talking cure’, influenced by Freud’s ideas about the dangers of repression, entailed intensive and time-consuming work with individual patients which, even if staff were knowledgable and willing, was unlikely to happen in public facilities.
By 1939, about 2,500 New Zealand men who served had been treated for psychiatric illness but the number suffering, in various ways, was undoubtedly much larger. In a twist of fate, in 1937 Mary N’s husband had her committed to Seacliff, after she took the children and fled her home at 4:30am. She expressed fear that her husband intended to poison the family and the two doctors who examined her, in her malnourished and unkempt state, decided she had ‘delusions of persecution’. She was found to be suffering from malnutrition and ‘marital incompatibility’ and later diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Paying her attention, the medical superintendent noticed that she was ‘rational and cheerful’ until mention of her husband. He made further inquiries of her mother and minister and found the details of her hellish married life. Her returned serviceman husband had suffered from a gas attack and shell shock and had turned to drink to drown his sorrows. He had become an alcoholic who terrorised his family and spent their limited income on alcohol rather than food and clothing. After rest and good food, his wife was able to return home to her mother and to plan a new life apart from her husband. Just how he then dealt with his demons we don’t know.
While drink provided a solace for some men, others tried to put the events of the war behind them through hard work. That was the case for one South Otago man, but even work could not overcome the psychological wounds of war service, including the loss of his brother in France. He finally took his own life in 1933, leaving behind his wife and three young children. Historian John Weaver has shown that returned soldiers had ‘significantly higher suicide rates than their civilian counterparts’. Shell shock played its part but so also did wounds, exposure to gas and the experience of being a prisoner of war. The trauma of the Great War was ongoing.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
- Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives, 1919, H-7, p. 27.
- War Pensions Amendment Act 1917 (8 GEO V 1917 No 16)
- New Zealand Herald, 20 May 1916, p.14.
- Marie Ann Robertson, ‘They were never the same after the war: the Mental Health of Returned Soldiers and the Effect of Family and the Community,’ BA Hons 490 dissertation, History, University of Otago, 2003, pp. 15; 64-5.
- Judith Holloway, ‘Unfortunate Folk’ A study of the social context of committal to Seacliff, 1928-37,’ in B. Brookes and Jane Thomson ed. ‘Unfortunate Folk’; Essays on Mental Health Treatment 1863-1992, University of Otago Press, p.155.
- John Weaver, Sorrows of a Century; Interpreting Suicide in New Zealand, 1900-2000 (McGill-Queens University Press/Bridget Williams Books, 2014, pp.154-56.
- AJHR 1917, H-7, pp.7-8.