Between 1914 and 1918, war strain appeared under a number of guises and affected, to varying extents, the majority of French soldiers. The most frequent form of war strain was war psychoneurosis, but war strain also induced more paroxystic disorders, such as acute episodes of terror, self-mutilation, induced illnesses and even suicide. Fear was the constant companion of soldiers of the Great War: soldiers were either able to tame it or overwhelmed by an uncontrollable fear. Nonetheless, over the course of the war, some aspects of fear were recognised as syndromes.
The French health service poorly anticipated the major consequences of war strain, as with many other types of injuries. After the establishment of wartime neuropsychiatric centres, two main medical stances emerged: listening to soldiers empathetically on the one hand and applying more repressive management on the other. For many physicians, the psychological consequences of this first modern war were synonymous with malingering or cowardice in the face of duty.
The stance of French military physicians in relation to their command was not unequivocal and remained ambivalent, swaying between medico-military collusion and empathy towards soldiers experiencing psychological distress. The ubiquity of suspected malingering modified the already porous borders between neuropsychiatric disorders and disobedience.
Several war psychoneurotic soldiers were sentenced by councils of war for deserting their posts in the face of the enemy and were shot. Many soldiers suspected of self-mutilation or suffering from induced illnesses were also sentenced and executed without an expert assessment of their wound or their psychological state.
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Front Neurol Neurosci. 2016 Apr 1;38:143-154
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