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Remembered Today:

Mental illness on a soldier's service papers - how severe?


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Amongst others, I'm researching the (very short) service of a French soldier whose paperwork actually astounded me and made me wonder how on earth he was ever enlisted.

As part of the 'Class of 1910', he was due to begin his compulsory military service in 1911. He was, however, exempted from this service due to mental illness (his paperwork describes the reason as being due to 'Idiocie'.......I've looked up what being classed as an 'idiot' actually meant in this era and, to me, it strikes me as actually being quite extreme).

He was exempted yet again in December 1914 for the same reason.

In February 1917, however, he was called up and sent to the Verdun front as an artilleryman, arriving there in May 1917. In June 1917 he was returned home and discharged due to 'arriéré mental' (quite literally - 'mental retardation').

He died at home in 1932 (aged 41)

Not being too well up on the mental illness terminology from back then, can anyone help me out with an educated guess as to how severe this man's case actually was (and, maybe, what was actually wrong with him.... I have a suspicion, but, if this was to prove true, then I'd be totally shocked that he found himself anywhere near the firing line).

Poor guy. I bet his few weeks at the front were absolute hell for him!

Thanks in advance for any assistance,

Dave.

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Could it refer to someone with a lower mental age than their actual years?

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From freedictionary

id·i·ot

(ĭd′ē-ət)

n.
1. A person who is considered foolish or stupid.
2. A person of profound mental retardation having a mental age below three years and generally unable to learn connected speech or guard against common dangers. The term belongs to a classification system no longer in use and is now considered offensive.
Whether there was a system to know the mental age of a three year old back then, I am not sure.
I have seen many references to 'imbecile' in asylum records.
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2. A person of profound mental retardation having a mental age below three years and generally unable to learn connected speech or guard against common dangers. ...

Thanks. It's actually a description very similar to that that I came across earlier that made me aware of the possible severity of the term (and, of course, the associated illness). If this description rang true also in 1911 France then surely, there's no chance that this man would have been sent to the front? .... or (rather worryingly) would he?

I'm hoping that even the French government of that era wouldn't have sent a man with such a severe affliction to the war-zone. Then again.... :unsure:

Cheers.

Dave.

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You would have hoped that his deficiencies would have been seen during basic training. If the category 2 is to be believed it would seem that he might not have been able to to take and carry out instructions. eg marching in formation, basic care of a rifle, loading and firing etc?

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You would have hoped that his deficiencies would have been seen during basic training.

Indeed. They were obviously apparent in 1911 and 1914.

I have a horrible feeling that they were totally overlooked in 1917 and it was only his actual active service unit who were sensible/compassionate enough to do something about the situation.

I'm wondering whether the description may be more extreme than his actual case. Prior to the war, he was in employment (he worked on a farm... doing what exactly, I don't know), so it would seem that he had a certain amount of capabilities at least.

Dave.

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If he had a job then maybe he did not fit into category 2. Perhaps idiot was used to describe people who did not come up to the army's expectations?

Perhaps his unit reported him for their own safety.

A bit off kilter but it has to be remember that unmarried girls who had a baby were put into asylums those days. Could depression be diagnosed back then? Most Downs Syndrome sufferers were put into institutions. There was no social help for those that appeared to act outside the considered norm.

These days we have a better understanding of mental illness and many more types. Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism, which back then were generalised as mental disorders.

Again slightly off on a tangent, I found a man who enlisted and with 9 days committed suicide. Was he already suffering a mental illness? I consider it hard to think that he went from perfectly sane to suicide in 9 days bearing in mind that he left a wife and children behind.

Back to your OP. perhaps you will never know the exact circumstances.

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Dave, I'm wondering whether the word used is 'idiotie'? This is used to describe someone who has significant functional disorders as a result of arrested development which may be caused by neurological factors or an organic disorder (rather than being a result of external factors or illness which imprinted themselves on the child's / adult's psychology or physiology and affected development). French psychiatrists in the early 20c were interested in the possible hereditary aspect of this type of condition or even syphilis further back in the direct family. (This research was somewhat unpopular among the public, for obvious reasons.) Your subject is likely to have had significant impairment in language, if he had any at all. He may have been oblivious to any idea of social conduct or moral restraint. They would probably have described him as dégénéré and it was usually thought that this person's place was in an asylum, quite separate from the rest of society for his/her own protection, as s/he was considered to be beyond any form of education, training, medication, psychiatric intervention and so on. It's different from someone whom they would have labelled as "retarded" (excuse me, please, for using the language of the time), l’imbécile, which was used for someone who was slow and apparently shallow but who may have been capable of understanding simple instructions or mixing with other people.

Therefore, I tend to think that the distinction which may possibly be being made is between someone who was born with serious functional disorders to do with his neurology or his genes, and someone who has developed a problem even very early on in life because of something which has happened to him (childhood experience, injury, illness affecting development, etc). I don't know enough to know how sophisticated early 20c psychology was at diagnosing the disorders we are now able to classify. Of course, we can't tell how much access, if any, at any point of his life, your subject had to a medic with the capability of making a psychiatric diagnosis.

I have a suspicion that idiotie may have included people with severe Downs Syndrome, though I can't immediately verify this from a source.

I agree with you that this poor individual is likely to have had an awful time at the Front.

You might find that this organisation can give you precise information: http://www.psychiatrie-francaise.com/

Gwyn

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...I have a suspicion that idiotie may have included people with severe Downs Syndrome...

Hi Gwyn... that was also my suspicion (the one I was alluding to in my original post), especially when considering his relatively young age of death.

The word used on the records is, indeed, 'Idiotie' (see below)....

I get the impression that he worked on a family farm before the war and was probably well looked after by his siblings and, perhaps, the local community which may be why problems only seemed to arise when he was to be removed from this community. I'm still astounded (shocked even) by the fact that he was accepted into the army and actually got to the front. I'm just glad that someone saw sense and that he was able to return home safely.

What initially seemed such an inglorious military career and a rather drab research piece (bearing in mind that when I started it, all I knew was the short term of the service, not the reasons behind it) has turned out to be one that has affected me more than any other that I've done. I really feel for this man and it makes me wonder how many other similar cases there might have been!

Cheers.

Dave

post-357-0-61870700-1434373904_thumb.jpg

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Hi - if you think it may mean Downs, which is what I wondered, I'll look for a reference. I would think that your guess that the family and community were fond of him and looked after him is probably right.

Edit. Phrases such as Idiotie du type mongolienne, l'idiotie mongoloïde and d'idiotie mongolienne are easy to find in a simple search on "le mongolisme et idiotie". I'm afraid I can't remember where I came across the connection originally, as it's a while back. I didn't want to be specific and second-guess your own theory.

What a saddening story.

Gwyn

Edited by Dragon
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Indeed. I have a family member who has autism and I cannot think how he would have coped with the demands of service life, or indeed how his colleagues would have coped with him. On a short interview he would not appear to be unsuitable for service, so it's entirely possible that people in his situation would have been passed as fit.

Gwyn

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I have a family member who has autism and I cannot think how he would have coped with the demands of service life, or indeed how his colleagues would have coped with him. On a short interview he would not appear to be unsuitable for service, so it's entirely possible that people in his situation would have been passed as fit.

Gwyn

My son is moderately austic but he's also highly articulate and very sharp minded but at the same time he's also very highly strung a lot of the time and prone to sudden outbursts and mood swings in addition to an extreme dislike of loud noises.

In a quick interview on a good day he would likely pass a cursory interview and medical.

Craig

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What a saddening story.

At least, in this case, there was a happy ending (of a sorts... hopefully, his experience didn't stay with him for too long). I don't suppose it would have been such a nice ending as living out a relatively happy and normal(ish) life to a natural end if he had managed to live for another 8 or 9 years!

It does make me wonder how many similar cases there were that may have ended less happily though.

Dave.

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On a short interview he would not appear to be unsuitable for service, so it's entirely possible that people in his situation would have been passed as fit.
In a quick interview on a good day he would likely pass a cursory interview and medical.

In this case though, he had already been rejected twice at two different intakes and the reason - 'idiotie' - recorded for posterity on his record sheets (which covers the period 1911-1932). I'm just surprised that he was even called for in 1917.

Dave

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Yes, of course. It was a digression into the possibility that other people with disorders which would have meant they found war extremely challenging could have been called up.

Do you have any ideas about why he was sent for?

Where was he from?

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No idea why he was called in 1917, Gwyn. I can only surmise that it was simply a case of his appearing on the 'liste matricule' (which doesn't show much detail other than name and number) for the class year 1910 and the fact that he wasn't a serving soldier. I assume that there was no check of his actual records.

He was from Serignan in Herault.

Dave.

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So sad! As a combat vet I can recall how I was petrified my first time under fire, and after too! What it must've been like for someone with his condition is beyond words. I echo the feelings expressed by others here that thank goodness his combat unit recognized his disabilites & took steps to get him out of the danger zone & home.

I too wonder why at some point in his basic training his problems weren't seen & action taken. Can only think maybe it was felt that he'd make a good cook's helper in a base kitchen or such but obviously that didn't happen. Poor man I hope he was able to spend his remaining yrs in some peace working on his family farm.

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I have come across another example of mental illness in a soldiers records . Included in the records of 2988 Sgt Francis Cuthbert Evernett are the proceedings of the court of enquiry and Inquest into his murder by Rifleman Cooper while serving with 31st London regiment in Essex, Rifleman Cooper was found to have acted while of unsound mind ( he shot himself after killing sgt Evennett). This is a thick file full of interesting documents not normally found in a soldiers records ,including transcripts of Sgt Evennet’s last letters to his wife.

http://interactive.ancestry.co.uk/1219/gbrmil1914r4pt2_138625-00394/652877?backurl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ancestry.co.uk%2f%2fcgi-bin%2fsse.dll%3findiv%3d1%26db%3dbritisharmyservice%26gss%3dangs-d%26new%3d1%26rank%3d1%26msT%3d1%26gsln%3dEvennett%26msydy%3d1917%26cpxt%3d1%26cp%3d11%26MSAV%3d1%26uidh%3d9cb%26pcat%3dMIL_DRAFT%26fh%3d12%26h%3d652877%26recoff%3d%26ml_rpos%3d13&ssrc=&backlabel=ReturnRecord

Rifleman Cooper seems to be described as an uneducated man with few intellectual skills who clearly suffered a psychotic episode. The evidence reflects on the poor quality of the Officers, doctors, NCOs and men left serving on the home front, as anyone of any quality is drawn ever closer to the meat grinder on the western front. The Doctors, recruiting Officers and training staff who should have weeded out the unfortunate French artilleryman were probably as incompetent as their British counterparts.

Modern war is a terrible thing, spare a thought for the mentally disabled in Syria!

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No idea why he was called in 1917, Gwyn. I can only surmise that it was simply a case of his appearing on the 'liste matricule' (which doesn't show much detail other than name and number) for the class year 1910 and the fact that he wasn't a serving soldier.

I suspect that, ironically, having some quality of life in the community and not being locked away in an institution meant that he was visible.

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Prehaps it ment that someone who appeared to be simpleton--who was mental capacity was thought to have been a child and not a young adult...?

Does anyone have access to a french army manual/dictionary that defines "idiotie" for this time period?

As to why he was drafted...attrition and manpower crisis because of the war...

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As an aside when the US army started recruiting in in 1917 some research was carried out on the recruits IQ A large proportion of the men scored low IQ scores that many would have been classified as morons or imbeciles.

However the research was flawed because recruits who were recent migrants from Europe generally scored above 100.

This group had the advantage of a state education and were generally more likely to be literate so the test was skewed not on intelligence as such, but on literacy.

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I suspect that, ironically, having some quality of life in the community and not being locked away in an institution meant that he was visible.

Very likely. That, combined with a possible clerical error (in that the liste matricule was possibly referred to alone as opposed to his fiche matricule being used in conjunction with it) and the possibility of Loader's suggestion (below) ...

Can only think maybe it was felt that he'd make a good cook's helper in a base kitchen or such

... followed by a further possible error when it came to the final unit posting could all have contributed to this man ending up in the last place on earth that he should have been!

Certainly an interesting and thought provoking case if nothing else!

Thanks again ,all, for the further replies.

Dave.

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As to why he was drafted...attrition and manpower crisis because of the war...

Not too sure about that being the reason actually, PFF (the 'oddballs of chance' thrown together in my last post would seem more likely).

Though there was certainly a manpower shortage, I don't believe that , in France, it was the 'crisis' that some historians would have us believe... the 'Class of 1919' wasn't called up until April 1918 and there was always the availability of the 'Class of 1920' which could have been called by 1918 but wasn't. If there was ever a front-line 'manpower crisis' as such, then this would have been around March/April 1915 when the older classes of the Territorial Reserve were mobilised... a situation that was resolved by this move.

Much of the true manpower shortages lay in the factories and farms of home rather than at the front. Indeed, since 1914, frontline soldiers had been given extended leave to help with the crops, etc and, by 1917 many soldiers (totally fit and able bodied) were transferred away from the front to work in factories etc (I've got the Livrets Militaire of a couple of such cases - one was an infantryman who had been 'out since'14' ... a machine gunner and holder of the Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre with 3 bravery citations who was, in 1917, transferred to work in a metallurgy plant in central France. He returned to the front in 1918 ... at his own request for a transfer back to a combat unit. The other was also an infantryman who had served at the front since 1915. In 1917, he was transferred to a munitions factory near Paris and remained here for over 6 months before returning to the front after a regimental transfer.).

I don't think that the situation would have ever got so critical that men with the problems suffered by the man this thread is about were needed in a military role.

Dave

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