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"Combat Fatigue of British Old Guard" Topic


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Osage201718 Aug 2017 6:17 a.m. PST

Hello Friends,

Sorry for the click-bait title and my poor English.
Some time ago I read regarding the experience of the British infantry in WW2, it was concluded that a British soldier might experience battle fatigue after 200-400 days of combat.

This is about only one year of fighting/campaigning.
So my question is, how fit mentally and psychologically were the British veterans of war in Spain. They campaigned longer than 1 year. Were they tougher than the British veterans of WW2 ?

"During the Dunkirk evacuation hundreds of men broke under an accumulation of physical and mental strain developing the classic symptoms of war neurosis; listless apathy, terrifying nightmares, depression and a pronounced startle reaction to the least noise."

It reminds me the Coruna evacuation in 1809 by Sir Moore's British corps. It must be similar nightmarish experience for the men. And what about the French retreat from Russia ?! It must be a PTSD on horrific scale !

from google: "John Appel found that the average American infantryman in Italy was "worn out" in 200 to 240 days and concluded that the American soldier "fights for his buddies or because his self respect won't let him quit". After several months in combat, the soldier lacked reasons to continue to fight because he had proven his bravery in battle and was no longer with most of the fellow soldiers he trained with. Appel helped implement a 180-day limit for soldiers in active combat."

So 180-400 days of campaigning was enough for the soldiers in WW2. What about the napoleonic veterans ? Some French, Russian, British, and Prussian veterans campaigned for 12 years, or even more.

Was the veteran of French Old Guard of 12 years was really better than the man of Middle Guard of 2 years of campaigning ?

Whirlwind18 Aug 2017 6:49 a.m. PST

Because there is a massive difference between "campaigning" and "combat". A Peninsular veteran of the entire conflict might only spend 20 days fighting; a Normandy veteran might get double that combat time in two months.

"During the Dunkirk evacuation hundreds of men broke under an accumulation of physical and mental strain developing the classic symptoms of war neurosis; listless apathy, terrifying nightmares, depression and a pronounced startle reaction to the least noise."

It doesn't remind me of Corunna at all. The memoirs (and the subsequent performance at the actual battle) are clear on this point – the British soldiery had no particular fear of the French, since they had worsted them in every encounter. Their complaints were having to march far too far for far too long in terrible weather with few or no supplies.

Bob the Temple Builder18 Aug 2017 7:12 a.m. PST

As Whirlwind comments, campaigning and combat are not the same.

If you are interested in the effect combat has on soldiers, I would recommend reading Lt Col Dave Grossnan's ON KILLING. ( link )

Le Breton18 Aug 2017 8:21 a.m. PST

In addition to the number of days, modern firepower is likely more stressful. I never had to face a well-trained enemy, but modern rapid-firing artillery, aircraft or armor lobbing modern HE rounds at you is draining, even if the other guy is not too good at it.

Ask Brechtel, he was a United States Marine artillery officer in Desert Storm, about the amount of literal hell-fire his guns could lay down. No wonder the Iraqi's were surrendering to journalists. If the guys I faced had 1/10th the skill of his gun teams, I would not be around to write this.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP18 Aug 2017 8:27 a.m. PST

You might read Walter Lord on Dunkirk for contrast. The hard-bitten regular battalions--especially the Guardsmen--were arriving on the beach in good order and discipline despite hard fighting, while a lot of the leaderless mob consisted of support troops and soldiers on construction details who had seen little or no combat. Study the Light Brigade in the Corunna Campaign. Leadership, training, tradition and discipline make huge differences.

As for the WWII studies, I'm a little skeptical of them even on their own terms, but hugely reluctant to apply them to pre-1914 combat. That US soldier in Italy was in trenches within range of enemy rifles for all 240 of those days, and was probably shot at, or believed he was being shot at, most of them. Start counting out, not how many days a soldier of the Grande Armee would be "on campaign" in a given year, but how often he'd actually be under fire--outside perhaps of the cavalry screen. How many French infantry or artillery in 1805 were actually shot at as many as four or five days? I doubt many of Napoleon's or Wellington's veterans ever saw 200 days of combat.

And--not to run down the Greatest Generation: my father was one of them--they were conscripts, often poorly trained, and "for the duration" not career soldiers. One of my father's friends was killed in action 90 days after receiving his draft notice. If Dr. Appel had talked to men with years in their regiment and no home or family but the regiment, he might have come to some different conclusions.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP18 Aug 2017 7:02 p.m. PST

Their complaints were having to march far too far for far too long in terrible weather with few or no supplies.

The affects: an accumulation of physical and mental strain developing the classic symptoms of war neurosis; listless apathy, terrifying nightmares, depression and a pronounced startle reaction to the least noise."

I think you are expecting British soldier to 1. Admit to such things, 2. To be under the same conditions from days on end, 3.To be aware of those behaviors as a distinct set of behaviors rather than attributed to other things, and 4. The survival of troops suffering those complaints during the "Death March" to Corunna and the battle.

There are several narratives commenting on the 'apathy','listless' behavior to the point of not carrying whether they froze to death or were set upon by French cavalry [I would think that would be a fear of the French], panics at the least suggestion of the French approach, and nightmares of the march and subsequent battle [even when 'safe' aboard naval transports] were attested to by none other than Colonel Napier who was captured at Corunna.

British soldiers then exhibited different attitudes towards such sufferings than WWII soldiers…often in response to very different conditions. That and the fact that Napoleonic officers wrote far more about the events from there perspective and such than the common soldier, who had a much greater voice during Dunkirk and after.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP18 Aug 2017 8:04 p.m. PST

Pssft! That's CARING, not carrying…

NickNorthStar Sponsoring Member of TMP19 Aug 2017 1:47 a.m. PST

Also, weren't people, especially working class people, just a little bit more 'brutalised' pre-20th Century, and therefore more able to cope with the rigours of life, and warfare. Englishmen would join the army to escape the dull, brutal life that faced them in the mines and the factories of merry Old England.

I don't think anyone was psychologically prepared for the Retreat from Moscow though.

To contradict myself a bit though, I think societies did have PST suffers post any war, but those Societies didn't recognise it nor the problems thrown up by large numbers of disturbed men trained to kill. Thinking about the Bonapartists after 1815, maybe even the armies of the War of the Roses made up of French War veterans, and the 20th Century, most of the leading Nazis were WW1 Vets.

Personal logo optional field Supporting Member of TMP19 Aug 2017 12:45 p.m. PST

I had a roommate who as a US army lt around the turn of the century. He said that before 9/11 he had been told that after 90 days of combat a soldier (enlisted or officer) was burned out for combat purposes more or less for life. That is to say the army had decided that based on the available evidence a normal volunteer soldier can only stand to be in battle 90 days out of his (or her) entire life before their performance drops off precipitously.

What is perhaps more interesting is that the army believed that no amount of rest or time could restore a soldier to anywhere near full efficiency. As I understood it, it was expected that after 90 days of actual combat soldiers would be transferred to non-combat positions.

Of course those studies were from the halcyon 1990s and were quickly buried when the army had to put soldiers through 3 (or more) tours in Southwest Asia (or else return to conscription).

I, for one, am inclined to believe the 90 days maximum theory. Many studies done by any large organization produce more or less biased and predetermined results. Simply because some within the organization demand those result contradictory evidence is ignored (i.e. the general, admiral, air marshal or CEO strongly supports this program and/or weapons system so if the writers of reports wish to continue their careers they had best produce the results). Any number of poor procurement decisions in the US military can be blamed on belief of leadership that a given system is necessary, even if the procured system is inadequate (e.g. The US Army needed a modern self propelled anti-aircraft cannon system, and the Sergeant York DIVAD has been selected as that system. Even after the Sgt. York was proven completely ineffective there was still a demand for it since the army needed a SPAAG. (One might wonder why the army did not request a different and more effective system, and the usual response is that, having spent vast sums on an ultimately useless system it was unlikely that the army would be given funds to develop another one)). However, in the case of the theory of the 90-day lifetime combat limit it is hard to argue that the army had any ulterior motive. Granted, that does not prove the theory, but it certainly lends it plausibility.

Also, weren't people, especially working class people, just a little bit more 'brutalised' pre-20th Century, and therefore more able to cope with the rigours of life, and warfare.

A valid argument could be made that the difficulty of working-class life would actually mean soldiers were less equipped to handle the stresses of combat. Consider that rather than building up a tolerance for brutal conditions pre-war life had actually worn away any mental reserves of the soldiers. There is certainly evidence that rather than having a greater tolerance for stress children who are raised in poverty and/or abusive homes (at least in the USA of 2017) are more likely to break-down under stress than their more sheltered peers. The same might apply to Britons of the twentieth-century.

foxweasel Supporting Member of TMP19 Aug 2017 2:26 p.m. PST

Also to be taken into account though, is the fact that a lot of professional soldiers enjoy combat.

Edwulf19 Aug 2017 2:40 p.m. PST

Yes. Napoleonic soldiers would spend less time in combat. 7 years in Spain might only equal about 2 months actual combat. The rest is spent marching, drilling, foraging, waiting, building things or whatever.

Sure they were put under combat stress. But I'd argue for less time and with more opportunity to recover between them… no long range artillery strikes, no tanks, no air threat…

Dr Jeckyll Supporting Member of TMP19 Aug 2017 7:31 p.m. PST

Just want to make a note that Grosmans "On Combat" (as well as "On Killing") and what he has dubbed "Killology" (yes, he actually has come up with the term) may not (actually Does Not) represent the accepted truth he passes his theories as being amongst military psychiatrist/psychologists today. For a more balanced view of the theme I would personally recommend "The better angels of our nature" by Steven Pinker, and for some background on the development of the theories of combat psychology "War of Nerves" by Ben Shepard gives a good summary of the history of the subject as well as todays prevailing theories. That beeing said, in my opinion mind you, it is hard to set a number of days as a limit to what a human being can tolerate. I think It gives more meaning to consider the accumulated stress-load, and by that I mean all the factors that come into play that can lead to a stress-overload situation, and even then you dont really know what little feather or traumatic exposure ultimately tipps the scale for an individual.
All this beeing said, most WWII Psychiatrist seemed to agree with Marshall, that about 30 days of "frontline service" could be tolerared by the majority. After this psychological attrition would greatly increase rapidly..again, statistics on a very selected population (US servicemen on the western front, and perhaps not applicable to all soldiers of the same conflict, like German soldiers on the eastern front). Interresting discussion though.

Whirlwind19 Aug 2017 9:44 p.m. PST

I had a roommate who as a US army lt around the turn of the century. He said that before 9/11 he had been told that after 90 days of combat a soldier (enlisted or officer) was burned out for combat purposes more or less for life. That is to say the army had decided that based on the available evidence a normal volunteer soldier can only stand to be in battle 90 days out of his (or her) entire life before their performance drops off precipitously.

John Ellis' The Sharp End which deals with this subject in some depth quotes 200-400 combat days from US studies, 400 combat days from British studies (the difference being that the latter apparently a result of more frequent rotation of front-line units).

After this psychological attrition would greatly increase rapidly..again, statistics on a very selected population (US servicemen on the western front, and perhaps not applicable to all soldiers of the same conflict, like German soldiers on the eastern front)

The scarcely believable casualty figures on the Eastern Front would lead one to believe that very few German or Russian comabt infantrymen would reach the psychological burn out problem.

Whirlwind19 Aug 2017 9:45 p.m. PST

Sure they were put under combat stress. But I'd argue for less time and with more opportunity to recover between them… no long range artillery strikes, no tanks, no air threat…

And crucially, the threat from mines and booby-traps.

Supercilius Maximus20 Aug 2017 4:17 a.m. PST

Also, weren't people, especially working class people, just a little bit more 'brutalised' pre-20th Century, and therefore more able to cope with the rigours of life, and warfare. Englishmen would join the army to escape the dull, brutal life that faced them in the mines and the factories of merry Old England.

When my brother did his history degree, back in the late late 1980s, he looked at early recidivism among the early 20th Century British and Irish working class, using pretty much the only comprehensive records of ordinary people available from that period – those held by the Army and Royal Navy. To his astonishment, he found that the life expectancy of working men actually went up in the decade that included WW1 (from a low base, it has to be said – it went up almost 10 years if you simply ignored males dying before reaching the age of 1). For the first time in their lives, these men had proper medical care, suitable clothing/accommodation, and three square meals a day, and because safety standards in the most dangerous occupations had been substantially improved to accommodate women.

Mick the Metalsmith20 Aug 2017 8:59 a.m. PST

Campaigning in friendly territory with sympathetic civilians rather than withhostile partisans who would make even non combat days stressful should be a consideration

4th Cuirassier21 Aug 2017 1:55 a.m. PST

I would think that a big difference in the Napoleonic era was that if you were in danger you knew about. As Edwulf says, no artillery strikes from a gun you never see or hear, no mines, no booby traps. In Napoleonic times, if you couldn't see an enemy you were safe from him (leaving obvious exceptions aside such as night, and theatres where ambush was a thing). On the typical battlefield you could be in sight of the enemy yet safe from him. In Normandy if you were within gun range of the line you were seconds away from being killed all the time for months on end.

davbenbak Supporting Member of TMP22 Aug 2017 5:03 a.m. PST

I realize this is slightly off topic but related. There was a brief discussion on TMP about the fear factor that 12 pound canons produced and that soldiers could actually tell by the sound if they were being used against them. The gist being that with a range of almost a mile, if you could be seen, you could be hit and therefor no place on the battle field was safe.

Mick the Metalsmith22 Aug 2017 9:01 a.m. PST

The tension was still only for the day of battle at best. 12lbs still had be pointing at you for them to be worrisome.. howitzers might be more eroding of morale but again only for the day of combat or siege bombardment.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP22 Aug 2017 7:00 p.m. PST

The tension was still only for the day of battle at best.

That isn't really the case for the Napoleonic soldier. There was a great deal of skirmishing and 'foraging' that went on. Then there were retreats like Burgos and Corunna for the British or Russia and the 1814 nearly constant campaign/battles for the French.

Lord Hill22 Aug 2017 11:34 p.m. PST

Very interesting thread, Optional Field I found your comment particularly thought-provoking.

I found this book link good but it did leave me wondering why it doesn't look at PTS (etc) at any wars before WW1. It seemed a pretty arbitary cut-off point. I've long thought a book which gathers together earlier accounts which seem to show evidence for post-combat stress would be interesting, from the Iliad to the C20th.

For Waterloo, for example, there are quite a few accounts e.g. a memory of seeing a French soldier with horrific facial woods which seem to suggest soldiers haunted for decades afterwards by events they had witnessed.

Mick the Metalsmith23 Aug 2017 7:01 a.m. PST

"Tension forthe day" was a reference to artillery.

The affairs of skirmishes and vedettes would still have been less tense for the British operating in relatively friendly Spain, although in1808-9 that was almost a hostile place for them too. Foraging in friendly areas would not be as stressful as what the French had to endure, nor even for them be theequivalent to the fear of snipers, mines, and instantaneous artillery barrage of modern campaigning. The British also had very good knowledge of where the French were while the French did not .

Piquets on both sides in the peninsula often agreed to give mutually benevolent warnings before any strife. Partisans did not.

Murvihill24 Aug 2017 9:55 a.m. PST

I think WW1 started the 24 hour combat cycle. Night attacks may have occurred in previous wars but patrols and raids happened nearly every night in WW1. Also the harassment shelling, I wouldn't underestimate the effect of the constant noise and stress from nearby explosions preventing sleep. Lack of sleep and constant unpredictable loud noises nearby would make anyone jumpy.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP24 Aug 2017 3:50 p.m. PST

Piquets on both sides in the peninsula often agreed to give mutually benevolent warnings

Happened in WWI and WWII. That doesn't mean picket duty wasn't stressful. And foraging was frequently in close proximity to the enemy.

I don't think one can compare the stresses faced by a Napoleonic soldier to those in WWI or WWII with a more or less equation any more than you can their mental states going into combat.

Who fought, why they fought, where they fought was different, creating different stresses. e.g. No soldier in WWI worried about a flogging for not saluting an officer or having an improper uniform.

Yet, the stresses faced by Napoleonic soldiers were real and many were not found on the day of battle. It is easy enough to note symptoms of PTDS in the memoirs of both officers and enlisted men, such as the heavy drinking to dull the pain or the need to find gambling diversions of any sort during and after the wars.

Edwulf25 Aug 2017 3:41 a.m. PST

PTS can occur to anyone in a traumatic situation a civilian who sees a car crash can be affected by it. So soldiers through out time were certainly going to be affected by it. They might not have recognized it as a condition or had a word for it.

I can't remember were I read but there was a quote from a young lady in the 19th century regarding an employee in her household who would fromtime to time when drunk have flashbacks about Badajoz.

And there's a case from the 23rd of a soldier going mad in camp and bayoneting his wife.

And an attempted regicide on the king was let of scot free when it was deemed he was a veteran light Dragoon who'd charged at Villiers En Couchies and suffered saber wounds to the head.

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