Shell-Shock – Aero-Neurosis

The term shell-shock was given medical credibility by C.S. Meyers in a Lancet paper published in February 1915. Eventually, military readership conceded that it was psychological in origin after much debate on the subject. Aviators were not spared the horror of this so-called “War Neurosis”, and the character Tom Munro suffers ongoing post-traumatic stress following his combat experience in his Bristol Fighter squadron.

The author is no psychiatrist, but it is not difficult to imagine how RFC and RAF crews suffered during WWI. During my research, I happened upon a book entitled I Flew with the Lafayette Escadrille by Edwin Parsons, an American pilot, who paints a poignant picture of the strain of combat flying. Escadrille N124, a French unit in WWI, was composed largely of American pilots and became known as the Lafayette Escadrille after the Marquis de Lafayette, a French hero of the American Revolution. I reproduce a passage from Parsons’ book verbatim:

No matter whether a man is visibly scared or not by a shower of flying lead, each time it happens to him, it leaves an invisible scar. He begins flinching before he knows it. And in the end, the strain cuts into his nerves. If he hasn’t a sedative for those strained nerves, and sometimes despite it, a bird is likely to get so screwy that he goes wild and begs for danger like dope or gets the wind-up and comes completely unstuck.

Underneath he may have all the courage and fortitude in the world but when his imagination gets the better of him or the constant strain is too severe, and his nerves go back on him, he’s no more good. It’s somewhat the same as shell shock. It always leaves a scar on the nervous system, and some men have killed themselves well after the war on account of it. That’s when the liquor came in – to ward off those searing scars and prevent a nerve-racked buzzard from blowing up altogether. When a man heard bullets whistle by his head the first time, he was either scared pink or else he had no idea what that peculiar sound could be. Speaking for myself, there isn’t any question. I was petrified, although I didn’t realise to what extent till I set my wheels down on home tarmac after the scrap and attempted to hop nonchalantly out of my ship. My knees absolutely refused to support me. They gave way like two pieces of string. I had to wrap a shaking arm around a strut and hang on for dear life for over a minute. My head mechanic thought I had been shot through the body at least a dozen times. My face was a greenish yellow, and my wildly staring eyes strained through two smudged circles which resembled burned holes in a blanket. There was a complete vacuum where my stomach should have been, and my mouth was full of heart or Adam’s apple or something.

The romantic notion of the WWI “Knights of the Air” as depicted in the image of a Bristol Fighter in action, has been perpetuated over time but there is little doubt that these brave “Knights” suffered enormous and often fatal mental strain in the course of their deadly combat over the fields of Belgium and France.

 

References:

Aero-Neurosis – Pilots of the First World War and The Psychological Legacies of Combat; Mark C Wilkins

I Flew with the Lafayette Escadrille; by Edwin C Parsons

 

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