If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Basket Case

At the risk of revealing too much material from the proposed print title of collected essays, balanced against the desire to have some fresh content to keep my audience warm while I look after things in the real world, I've decided to publish here, for the first time a brand new essay I wrote for inclusion to the print version.  I'm still not on board with any publisher so far, and I hope to get back into more frequent and regular posts (I've been promising to write about chaplains in WWI for some time now, but haven't gotten down to it.)

What follows is a brief understanding of one of the most difficult to understand aspect of the War, the idea of Shell Shock.

The title of this essay is, without a doubt, an offensive phrase.  In its modern meaning, it is applied to someone who appears frazzled or mentally unstable; incapable of proper action due to emotional stress.  The phrase itself is supposedly linked to the First World War due to arts and crafts therapy undertaken by patients who had been diagnosed with nervous conditions.  These men were given simple, repetitive tasks such as basket weaving in the hope it would distract them from the strange and misunderstood symptoms of their condition. 

It was commonly referred to at the time as “Shell Shock”, which in itself comes from a medical misunderstanding of its cause.  As much as physiological medicine of the age may appear ignorant or backward to us today, psychiatric medicine was much further behind, as it still is.  Mental illness is difficult to diagnose and even now there exists very few fully effective treatments for psychological disorders, and the general stigma of public feeling towards the mentally ill; as objects of pity, fear or weakness still surrounds our understanding of these ailments.  Such attitudes only harms the sufferer further, even to the point of suffering in silence rather than to seek treatment lest they be thought of poorly.
The medical misunderstanding at the time was that close proximity to concussive force of explosions somehow jarred and disordered the brain.  The term was intended quite literally and was applied in a generic sense to a variety of mental illness.
The mildest cases could almost go unrecognised, usually noticed in a slight change of demeanour or a depressive or melancholy state; to more obvious signs such as complete despondency, mania, loss of sensibility or relation to surroundings, shaking or twitching, making nonsensical sounds or animalistic screaming.  In extreme cases this produced “hysterical conversion syndromes in which a mental condition had physical symptoms like paralysed limbs, blindness or deafness.” (Holmes, 484)

By December 1914 the British had noted that 3-4 per cent of enlisted personnel and as many as 10 per cent of officers were displaying neurological symptoms. (Meyer 393)  Much misunderstood by military commanders and army physicians as cowardice or malingering, sufferers were often punished by military law.  This included several cases of execution by firing squad for cowardice even in the face of medical evidence supporting the existence of a nervous condition.  This was the standard practice rather than properly diagnosing, as much as was possible with medical knowledge at the time, and if not even diagnosed, no type of treatment, effective or otherwise could be applied.

It wasn’t until the mid –point of the war that a better understanding began to take hold:  “Charles Myers, a young English psychiatrist, decided... shell shock was a ‘singularly ill-chosen term’....It rose out of the particular conditions of trench warfare, an experience beyond anything the human psyche was built to endure.” (Meyer 396)

It was found that quick removal from the combat area and treatment behind the lines was most effective, not of curing the condition necessarily but enough to return the patient to active duty.  This may sound harsh, and does need to be tempered with contemporary understandings of such conditions partnered with the military necessity of returning all recuperated wounded, physical or psychological, whenever practicable, back to the line.  Conversely the treatments could be just as terrible as the disease- extremes we wouldn’t think of today such as applying electric shocks or submerging in ice water were just as common as gentle recuperation. 

It is estimated that after the war about 65 000 British soldiers were on pension for ‘neurasthenia’ (as cases
of shell shock were officially labelled).  This amounted to 6 % of all pensions, with some nine thousand still in hospital, some never to be released.  It was estimated from a small sample study that about 39% of cases ever returned to some kind of normalcy. (Ferguson, 341)
We know better today that cases of psychological stress were not solely a First World War phenomenon.  An official report of American forces in the North West European Theatre of World War II stated that all men were susceptible to such breakdowns, and an average individual would begin to lose effectiveness after ninety days in the combat area (Ambrose, 203)

Even then, during the Second World War, there were still those unconvinced that such illnesses were legitimate.  The incidences of the American General George S Patton Jr. striking private soldiers who had been admitted to hospital for nervous disorders are among the most well known examples.

Today, we give the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” to such illnesses, and even understand that they can occur in all cases of mental trauma and are not specific to the military or combat.  However, modern medicine still has no comprehensive treatment of PTSD; and as long as the fear and stigma of mental illness persist, some who might benefit from treatment will remain undiagnosed from the shame, and those who admit their condition to seek help can still be handled in a marginalised way.


Ambrose, Stephen E.: Band of Brothers, Pocket Books 2001


Ferguson, Niall:  The Pity of War 1914-1918, Penguin 2009


Holmes, Richard: Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, Harper Perennial 2005


Meyer, G.J.:  A World Undone, The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delacorte Press 2007

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Century Approaches

Hello, all.  I've had a wonderful and busy few weeks, with  surprise opportunites to help with some research for the Leeds University War Memorial.  Thanks again for this to Dave Stowe (@DBS48).  Also, Mike of Wokingham Remembers (@wokyremembers) for the chance to share some info on a very bad day for the 1st (Western Ontario) Battalion, CEF.  My pleasure on both counts, gentlemen.  These opportunities offer more proof  of the deep connection shared by Canada and the UK at this point in our past. (for more see my post Canadian, Eh?).

I am only too pleased to give a hand where I can- I'm really eager to branch out with my military genealogy work.  Any questions or requests in this regard can be forwarded to me at ifyebreakfaith@gmail.com.  
As always, this column can be followed through Twitter and Facebook.

I've done a dry run with the draft copy of the print version of the collected essays, having converted them to PDF and ported them to my e-reader.  It's not perfect, and the book isn't quite finished; so I'm going to play with it a while before it's ready to see the light of day.  That, and call me a traditionalist, but I'd much rather see the blessed thing bound in paper first.

One thing I really haven't touched a lot on is the upcoming centenary of the First World War.  Starting in 2014 and throughout until 2018 will be the hundredth anniversary of all the events of this crucial conflict.  Running up to this I've begun to hear a fairly divisive debate on how exactly these events be remembered:  As either a reflection of sacrifice or a celebration of victory.  The difficulty is that we are so far removed from the events of the past, coupled with the notion that our modern conception of the First World War was a tragedy of history.  This idea permeates so much that I can recall offhand that the late Sir John Keegan begins his introduction to his book "The First World War" using terms such as "avoidable" and "waste".  We can talk circles around whether a historical event was or was not avoidable; that does not change the fact it happened; moreover we run into a great amount of difficulty whenever modern sentiments of morality are placed upon events of our past.  To attempt to view or observe a past event with emphasis on our modern sense of morality being better than that of the time seems a bit apologist in approach and completely discounts the importance the events of the past had on the development of our current sense of morality.

For that matter, I don't believe we are obligated to solidly categorize any four year period of human history as all of one thing or all of another-that would be an entirely prejudicial notion.  It stands particularly true of the First World War.  We need to keep in mind when discussing this war (which comes by its pejorative alternate name very honestly)  we are thinking about an epoch that involved and touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people; had grand political, social and economic change throughout the world and its impact is still evident even now.  It is important to view any conflict as a difference of value systems; of differing ideas or attitudes.  When the Triple Entente and Central Powers went to war in 1914, the differing ideologies of the two camps- even to the nature of what they hoped to gain as a result of the war- were the rallying points for the respective populations.  We might not hold these values true over time; but it certainly doesn't negate their contemporary importance.

The difficulty in existing all in one mode of thought or the other is that it is subjective, and often linked to emotion.  My viewpoint, as I have expressed here before is that history need not be a subjective study; it must be as objective a study as is practicable.

There is a general misunderstanding centering on what the First World War was about and that the peace process was inconclusive which then leads to the idea of futility and wastefulness.  It must be understood the reasons why countries went to war when they did and attempt that understanding in a context contemporary to the events rather than notions which were assigned after the fact. 

Perhaps, then it may not be pertinent exactly which way the war be viewed in light of the upcoming centenary; it is that we need to  understand the event as it was, not what we feel it is or believe it should be.  If we don't understand, properly, objectively we cannot learn- and if we cannot learn, we can't  change.

I find it very pertinent to begin to raise this issue as here in Canada there has been very little official announcements as to any observance of the war.  Both the governments of the UK and Australia have committed funds to the Centenary- which is where the debate on the "how" of the observance has stemmed.  For Canada, it is my belief that the First World War is a particular touchstone of our history because of the impact on our nation which has helped develop the direction our affairs have taken in the subsequent decades.
So, in fact, marking the Centenary of World War One is not a celebration of a blood letting, but an appreciation of what our antecedents made possible in the development of Canada as a modern nation.

A challenge in the need for observance here is linked into a misunderstanding from a civil viewpoint of military endeavors; particularly difficult to a country that doesn't strongly identify with a martial origin.  It is crucial to remember that the war and its impact was not isolated to what took place in the trenches.  Between 1914 and 1918, our country was united as it hadn't been previous.  It is true that the majority of our population was not engaged directly with combat in Europe but that should not discount the nation's efforts in production and economics was geared to the prosecution of the war.  In this, in addition to Canada's successes on the battlefield, our country proved itself as capable of undertaking its own affairs domestically as well as abroad and was instrumental in gaining a further independence in our national direction from that of Britain.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Gas! Gas! Gas!

It feels good to be back to working with this column again.  Once more, I cannot promise a regularity or frequency of posts at the moment due to my current schedule, but I will try to do the best I can to provide new content as often as I am able.  To that end, I’m cheating a little with today’s essay as it is pulled directly from new content I generated for the print version of “If Ye Break Faith.”  I don’t want to do this too often as I don’t want to give too much away, but I figured a sample chapter might whet some appetite.  I have not had much time to approach publishers with regards handling this work, and it isn’t quite complete yet; but I feel very close.  Good news from bad is that I have received first refusal from a prospective agent and am free now to shop the manuscript to whomever I would want to approach.

In the meantime, I am eager to increase my portfolio of completed work.  To that end, I am offering to work pro bono for the next while with any copywriting projects that may come my way-which is to say if you know anybody with some work needing done, please think of me.  Sending me a message through ifyebreakfaith@gmail.com would be the best way to contact me for short term copy projects at the moment.  Also, as mentioned in my last post, I am gearing up to offer my services as a military genealogist.  If you wish to know more about a Canadian relative who was veteran of the First World War, send a request through the above email.  Right now I’d be willing to interpret documents and military records for the cost of retrieving them from the archives, and any postage involved.  I’m relying on word of mouth alone for this start-up, so I appreciate you all in telling your friends.  Thank you.

Keeping up with this site and the project it supports can be done by following our Facebook Page, and Twitter Feed.  Any suggestions, questions or comments, please forward them to me here: ifyebreakfaith@gmail.com.

I tend to ask, when stuck for subject matter, a rather quick-fire question:  “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the First World War?”  Surprisingly, no matter how many times I’ve posed that question to friends and relations, only one has answered “Poison gas; and its brutality.”
I think we have developed a cultural blind spot in the modern age to how widely this weapon was used during the war, have preconceived notions of its effectiveness and particular to those of us with a cultural bias towards the Western Allies most will decry the nastiness of the Germans for having used it first; with our subjectivity blind to who actually made the most prolific use of the various gasses developed in the war; Great Britain.

The Hague Convention, an 1899 conference and compromise between major European powers on the laws and conduct of war had resolved that the use of shells with the purpose of delivering asphyxiating gasses was to be prohibited.  Non-lethal gasses known as ‘lachrymatory’ or more commonly referred to as ‘tear gas’ was permitted by the Convention as it was seen as an aide to civil unrest.

It is supposed that the Germans, who first used chlorine against French Colonial troops on the 22nd of April 1915 in the opening phase of the 2nd Battle of Ypres, were attempting to side-step the Convention as they released this deadly gas via cylinders placed along their front lines as opposed to using artillery shells as a method of delivery.

As a surprise weapon against unprepared troops it was decidedly effective, causing the two French divisions to retire in panic.  This left a gap nearly four miles wide into the left edge of the salient and it was only a German failure to exploit this gain by having reserves close to hand to push through this breach that prevented a decisive breakthrough.  Two days later, the 24th, the Germans renewed their attack, this time against the Canadian Division which held the centre position at Ypres.  However in the intervening days, a simple expedient of using cloth soaked in water or urine to dilute the gas had already been set down as practice for the defenders.  This may destroy some notions that the use of such methods was a spontaneous measure enacted at the onset of the assault that morning.  The Canadian Division was able to hold their position and when reinforced on the left by British and Indian units were able to refuse the Germans any considerable gains.

Although the Western Allies protested this abuse of the Convention, a race was begun involving both sides to produce more effective gasses and means of delivery.  The first use of gas by the British was at their offensive at Loos on 25th September of the same year.  They too used chlorine dissipated via cylinder but a shift in wind direction made this deployment very ineffective. (Keegan 201)
While both sides attempted to outdo each other in the development of chemical weapons, they each in turn made progress in personal protective measures.  At its best, this was a respiratory device which used filters mainly of activated charcoal to negate the poison.  Colloquially these respirators became known as we still now call them- gas masks.

The very first use of asphyxiating gas was by far the most successful, but relied mainly on the shock and surprise of the new weapon rather than the casualties it caused.  “The chlorine gas originally used was undeniably cruel, but no worse than the frequent effect of shell or bayonet...statistics proved it the least inhumane of modern weapons.” (Liddell Hart, 145)  It is estimated that for the British, from official war records, gas was an accountable cause of death for 1.2 per cent of the total loss of life in the war.  This seems to waylay the overt idea of its lethal effectiveness, but let’s not forget that in such a war, a single percentage of fatalities is indicative of nearly 6 000 lives.  It is generally supposed that the use of chemical weapons on the Eastern Front was much more deadly, but poor records kept by pre-Revolution Russia and the confusion of the events for that country in 1917 have made accurate assessments difficult to determine.

Despite this fact, each major offensive mounted by either side for the remainder of the war was predicated with the use of gas in the ‘Fire Plan’ (the elaborate artillery preparation and bombardment prior to advancing the infantry.)  This should be taken into account that no one side which had access to chemical weapons and the means to use them desisted; even the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  We may think ourselves higher minded today but the language of our policy on Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence (NBCD) should be scrutinised.  The policy states that Canada would never initiate an NBC attack.  Nothing is stated on retaliatory measures and it would be a bit naive if we allow ourselves to believe our nation currently has not the means to do so.  Something to think about indeed.  

Two reasons dictated the perseverance of chemical weapons in the First World War.  The first was that neither side wished to cede a technical advantage, no matter how marginal.  The second may not be readily apparent.  Forcing one’s opponent to wear and operate in protective respiratory equipment by use of gas has a tremendous effect on their capabilities.  Gas masks, in order to work well have to be restrictive as to not allow any leak of poison.  The wearing of such devices dramatically reduces visibility and hearing and makes vocal communication incredibly difficult.  Even modern variants are terribly uncomfortable things to wear and work in.

It seems odd but we owe it to his experience of having being gassed in the First War which made Hitler forbid the offensive use of poison gas by his armies in the Second.  Perversely, though, it was also why gas was used as a means to enact his “Final Solution”, his government’s design for the eradication of European Jews and other groups the National Socialists deemed undesirable and therefore dispensable.  On the other hand, it should be taken into account that Churchill was fully prepared to use the incredibly lethal type of gas known as ‘nerve gas’ (where deadly exposure could occur with as little as a few micrograms breathed in or absorbed through the skin) in the event of German landings on British beaches.

Today, the present fear of use of biological or chemical weapons, what we now term “Weapons of Mass Destruction” dictates that the respirator and other protective clothing be a constant part of a soldier’s combat equipment.  Such is the legacy of terror of these weapons that the respirator is given priority over all other equipment.  A soldier in the field today may from time to time be without a weapon depending on tactical situation or not wearing their load-bearing equipment but they will never be without the pouch containing their gas mask.    

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

One, Two-Three, One

For the entre-nous this post’s title may not make much sense, but those of you with a military background in the British Commonwealth should understand it immediately.  It is a type of phrase candidates learning foot drill are required to call out in unison to properly gauge the timing of movements.  Typically, troops move on the “ones” and pause on the “two-threes.”  As an example, an “about turn”-a 180 degree change in direction faced- consists of two parts movement divided by on standard pause.  Therefore, the called timing would be “one, two-three, one.”

In the initial phases of training, these counts are vocalised until the timing is understood by all and the movement is being executed according to standard.  At this point, candidates are instructed to count the timings in their heads.  If it works correctly, the new troops will be able to march and drill with proficiency, synchronicity, and-more importantly to tradition- silently.  However, as often happens, lessons might not absorb on the first go ‘round and any slip from proper standard will be met with the instructor ordering the course remedially to call the timings out until standard be met again.

The analogy I’m reaching for here is that I’ve lost sight of what should be my standard, so I am going back to basics.  If Ye Break Faith began as a simple project with a clear goal:  To collect in one location short biographies of every member of the CEF killed on Active Service during the First World War. That goal has never changed, but has been sidelined bit by bit in an attempt to fashion some type of business from the fabric of what I had begun to create in order to fund the research and writing of these biographies.  The problem is, as my short venture in the travel business last year proved, I am not a commercially minded man.  I was bashing away at trying to force a square peg through a round hole, losing myself and the intent along the way.

Having had some time away from this-which my health concerns required- allowed me to reflect on what I needed to do.  First is to clean house and rid this space of content which confuses the overall purpose.  In looking into doing this during January of this year, I realised that the essays I had been writing and collecting here would fit rather nicely (if reorganised somewhat, tweaked and correctly referenced) as a book.  To that end, the print title “If Ye Break Faith” is very nearly complete.  I still have the long road to haul on finding a publisher to handle it, but it`s hoped that publication will enable me to push the biography aspect of the project ahead as it should be.  This means that some of the content of this site will be eliminated in efforts to not confuse first posts with the finished item as some of the differences are glaring.  It is also hoped that my first full-length publication will help me to produce more works on the remembrance of WWI.  The top of that list would be the proposed travelogue/walk with the past “Iron Spirits.”
Not having made full use of this space for a long time and having to reset a bit excites me as despite my inactivity, my network, particularly with Twitter (@ifyebreakfaith) has grown a great deal.  I’m enthusiastic to welcome new readers and hope still to bring inciting and insightful topics for thought and discussion.  This will be done concurrently as I grapple with exactly how and in what form the 60 00 0+ biographies will be written and collected; and a shortly to be announced side project to work on a freelance basis on military genealogy.  All I can say for the bios is that they will be collected online and publicly contributed to.  The genealogical work will be announced in full in an upcoming post.
This whole journey has been a learning process for me, and I’m certainly not discouraged by having made mistakes along the way which has necessitated a remedial action.  I cannot be because I think of this:
The decimation of the British Expeditionary Force in the autumn of 1914 coupled with the necessity of raising huge forces in Britain and throughout the Empire meant that certain standards of training could not be met when balanced against the requirement of quick deployment to prevent catastrophe on the Western Front. 
For the greater part of the hundred years preceding the BEF’s landing on the continent, Britain had been mainly engaged in limited conflicts within her own empire that could best be described by the euphemism “police action.”  Not discounting the Crimean or South African Wars, Britain’s reputation of a highly professional armed force had not  really been put to test.  The BEF,  the eve of war, was about to clash with a large host of whom some of the older officers would have had combat experience on the same ground they intended to cross.
War itself had changed.  While Britain was out “minding the shop” of Empire, the continental powers had formulated plans and incorporated tactics and technology for the very sort of war that was about to happen.  The only marked advantage that Britain had to hand was that the core of the BEF was full-time career soldiers meeting large bodies of recently activated reservists on the German side.  Unfortunately, it was an advantage that could only be used once.  The clash at Mons shattered the Regular Army and put in motion the need to push the Territorials and the New Armies to the front with all due haste.
These troops were, as events played out, adequate to operate in the defensive and in limited offensive works; usually in the need for localised counter attacks while the Front settled into its shape over 1915.  Major offensives such as those designed to win the war were another story.  The New Armies’ trial by fire at the Somme in 1916 showed glaring errors and oversights in organisation and training from the top down.  A great amount of time, effort and energy was spent in shaking things out and training the civilians turned soldiers to a level that the situation beforehand had precluded.  Lessons were learned absorbed and incorporated which would put the Allies in a superior position to claim victory in 1918.
The idea was, in one respect, lessons learned in lives lost.  Tactical doctrine having improved as time wore on indicates that the desire to conclude the war favourably was not predicated, as many would believe, on the wastage of human effort.  That a great amount of men died cannot be debated, but whether that number was greater or lesser than necessary is an argument without resolution.
The perseverance and dedication, even to the level of spending in lives cannot help but be wondered at, if not admired.  So, if I have to re-evaluate and adjust a broken notion, I can only hope to have the courage to do so.
To all of you who have expressed concerns over my health, I thank you very much for your thoughts and well wishes.  I’m pleased to say that my condition is in remission.  However,  have been ill for quite some time and as a result I’m undertaking a short course for educational and employment rehabilitation.  It is my hope that I will be able to keep close contact with If Ye Break Faith’s social network during this time but this, and updates to the blog may not be as frequent as I would wish them to be.  I appreciate all of your patience as I’ve worked through this difficult time and thank you all for sticking by and believing in what I’m doing.