Jump to content
Free downloads from TNA ×
The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Enlisting with hidden mental health conditions


Recommended Posts

Hi. I am starting research for novel I am writing in which a character who enlists has what is known today as high functioning autism. Obviously it was not a know condition in 1914 but some people with it, may have been diagnosed as having schizophrenia or at best just considered odd. My question is would it have been possible for someone presenting for enlisting who in all other respects was fit, to have succeeded to making it to the front as a soldier. Also as the war dragged on did the medical checks become lax. Thank you in advance for any help or pointers to where I might find this info.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Admin

In 1914 the enlistment process was overwhelmed doctors, who were paid per recruit let men through with the scantiest examination.  Details of the supposed examination which included 'defective intelligence' are outlined on the Long Long Trail http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/soldiers/a-soldiers-life-1914-1918/enlisting-into-the-army/instructions-for-the-physical-examination-of-recruits/

I strongly recommend you read the sections on enlistment on the LLT website. link top left.


Similarly in 1915 under the Derby or Group Scheme many unfit men were attested.  This was well documented.  The 40th Division, originally a 'Bantam' Division was delayed going to France because once they began training in earnest the Division lost half its strength due to the unsuitability of recruits.  This was mainly physical fitness, or lack of it, but no doubt there were some who could not adapt to military life.


A recruit had to be capable of following orders and submitting to army discipline.  A man incapable of following orders would be discharged as ‘unlikely to become an efficient soldier’ whilst in the U.K.  Their mental disposition is occasionally mentioned in the surviving service records but  these are the men who passed the enlistment process but were identified during training. 


After 1916, and universal conscription, the  enlistment process did not become more lax but was much more organised. 

In 1917 the Military Service (Review of Exemptions) Act led to men previously dcalared unfit being called up for service, in turn this also led to men previously placed in the fitness category 'C' i.e. 'fit for garrison duty at home' being sent on active service overseas.


That said in discussing 'shellshock' or the medically preferred term 'neurasthenia' or 'mental disorders' in Medical Diseases of the War Volume II https://archive.org/details/medicalservicesd02macp/page/n11/mode/2up

it was acknowledged some patients were suffering from a pre-existing mental illness prior to enlistment.  This was especially so in 1915 when men were identified who had had a traumatic childhood and the OH asserted ‘such types of personality were not likely to withstand the strain' (of war).

The conclusion of this chapter notes “The instructions for guidance of medical boards by the Ministry of National Service during the war were regarded as indicating the standard of examination which was most likely to succeed in eliminating those men who would be liable to suffer from mental or nervous breakdown in war.”  However it goes on to say that the difficulties in recognising this on enlistment were great and it was left to the instructors in training to identify those men who were mentally unfit for active service.


The short answer to your question is yes it was possible, especially at times of peak recruitment and yes, it may have

been possible to hide the condition.  He may have been thought of as a bit strange with poor social skills but given the subservient nature of the population some soldiers suffering from a mental breakdown were described by Macpherson (ibid) as ‘morose and discipline seemed to give them a sense of grievance, as though it had been especially directed at them’  or as we might put it, they did not fit in to the expected norms.


This would not prevent them from duty though over time this might cause problems as the sense of camaraderie and reliance on others may have been absent.  The Army Medical Services were well aware of the danger of sending unfit men, whether suffering from a physical or mental condition to the Front, but on the law of averages alone, no doubt many slipped through.


But, it’s a novel so you can say what you like. Most twenty first century fiction on WW1 either perpetuate myth or focus on minorities whose participation was relatively insignificant among the millions who served.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Well, I know that it was certainly (and unfortunately) possible to 'slip through the net' with such conditions in the French Army - even when those conditions were known about and documented pre war, so I'd suppose, similar could be encountered in other armies too.


Just for interest's sake, here are the livrets militaires of two such French soldiers and the identity disc of another


Marius Sabatier was exempted from all pre-war service, but was called into service in early 1917 and found himself serving in the Verdun sector for just under a month May to June 1917 before being sent back and discharged ... He had (fully documented on his pre-war records) Down Syndrome!


Felix Heurtin was a sufferer from morbid depression - a condition that initially postponed , then restricted his pre-war service to that of auxiliary service yet allowed call up into an infantry regiment in Nov 1914 and front line service from June 1915. He was killed in action in September 1915


Ex (pre-war)-cavalryman Jean Clovis Cambon had undocumented mental health issues at the time of his wartime service with an escadron du Train et des équipages militaires near Paris. He died in the psychiatric hospital at Evreux (l’asile d’aliènes d’Evreux) on 22 Aug 1917.




Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thankyou so much for your superb replies to my question. Although it is a novel I do intend to be as factually correct as possible. The war element to it is actually quite brief but important for the character development and particularly around the condition he suffers. Of course back then it had no clinical title. There had been some exploration of the behavioural theory in 1911 but in the main it was considered a variant of schizophrenia and for those displaying the more profound symptoms, as you can imagine treatments were awful. I am so grateful for your time spent replying and the knowledge you share. Thankyou


Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 years later...

Not only would it have been possible for a patient with high functioning Autism /Asperger's/ On the spectrum to be recruited, I would suggest that many would make excellent soldiers: obeying orders  and frustrstion at others' failure to do so; an obsessive attention to detail etc.

Dare I suggest in fact that his might make for excellent officer material  particular in planning, logistics, engineering and so on.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I've come across a different scenario to the one mentioned in the original post.

There are several surviving papers from the pension record set, archive reference WO 364/2639 

Dennis Murphy, SR 15582, Private, South Wales Borderers.
Next of kin: brother John, 15 Trevelyan Street, Penrhiwceiber, Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan
He enlisted under SR terms of service on 21 May 1915, discharged on 16 Jun 1915 under Paragraph 392, (iii) Not likely to become an efficient soldier, (c) Recruit within three months of enlistment considered unfit for service.

Whilst there are quite a few surviving records of men discharged within 3 months on medical grounds, this record sticks out, given that it makes reference to the mental health of this man.

For anyone who had served more than 3 months, who was discharged under medical grounds, Para 392 (iii) (c.c.) refers


Link to comment
Share on other sites

13 minutes ago, cheysel said:

the understanding of mental health was quite different, and conditions like high-functioning autism might have been overlooked or misunderstood

You must remember that the term 'autism' didn't appear until around the Second World War, 'Aspergers', not until the 1970s and 'the spectrum' not until the 21st century. Prevalence of any or all of these conditions is now thought to be between 1 to 2 %, and who knows, maybe even higher. ISo, yes, some of these people would have just been regarded as 'odd', 'slow', or 'mentally deficient' but still recruited, however most of  the 1 or 2% would have slipped through unnoticed. Some might  even have achieved great things, think Alan Turing in WW2.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 28/08/2023 at 14:54, Dai Bach y Sowldiwr said:

Not only would it have been possible for a patient with high functioning Autism /Asperger's/ On the spectrum to be recruited, I would suggest that many would make excellent soldiers: obeying orders  and frustrstion at others' failure to do so; an obsessive attention to detail etc.

Dare I suggest in fact that his might make for excellent officer material  particular in planning, logistics, engineering and so on.

I've often thought this: the qualities needed to organise and see through to their conclusion complex operations under difficult, chaotic circumstances are particularly well-attested in (for example) some expressions of ASD - I can think of family members to whom this clearly applies, in fact.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...