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Writing those battles

Demesnedenoir

Myth Weaver
For me, there is some mysterious line between being entertained and thinking, "That's just stupid." Dragons in battle in Game of Thrones on HBO was an example of where "that's cool" turned to "that's stupid." Yes, I could pick on other things in GoT, but that was a point that really crossed a line.

For the most part, I accept things and roll with it, and examples from film would be smothering someone to death with a pillow or breaking someone's neck. Neither of these activities is as quick and easy as depicted in movies, but do we REALLY want to see someone take the real-time necessary to smother someone to death with a pillow? Breaking necks is often a shorthand version of a fight to save screentime and lower the blood splash. Breaking necks? Hell, I came across a wounded rooster once and wanted to put him out of his misery, but no weapon handy. I've seen people break a chicken's neck before, no problem, right? Ha! Trust me when I say that rooster didn't appreciate my first attempt to end his suffering.
 

Nighty_Knight

Troubadour
For me, there is some mysterious line between being entertained and thinking, "That's just stupid." Dragons in battle in Game of Thrones on HBO was an example of where "that's cool" turned to "that's stupid." Yes, I could pick on other things in GoT, but that was a point that really crossed a line.

For the most part, I accept things and roll with it, and examples from film would be smothering someone to death with a pillow or breaking someone's neck. Neither of these activities is as quick and easy as depicted in movies, but do we REALLY want to see someone take the real-time necessary to smother someone to death with a pillow? Breaking necks is often a shorthand version of a fight to save screentime and lower the blood splash. Breaking necks? Hell, I came across a wounded rooster once and wanted to put him out of his misery, but no weapon handy. I've seen people break a chicken's neck before, no problem, right? Ha! Trust me when I say that rooster didn't appreciate my first attempt to end his suffering.
Yeah, breaking necks are incredibly difficult to do. And with humans, even if you break it often it’s just really painful, they need to severe the spinal cord to just cause paralysis, let alone death from the brain stem being severed. More people die in real life from that by being punched really hard than someone turning their head fast like an evil chiropractor.
 
To start with, I agree with that last sentence!

I'm not sure that war was less scary or less traumatic. What is relatively new is the widespread modern recognition of the impact that wars have on people. It was only really during the Second World War that people began to more widely acknowledge that shell shock (what we now know as PTSD) was a legitimate condition, and PTSD is something which has become much more accepted in the last 50 years or so.

But, as Herodotus' description of the Battle of Marathon (440BC) the condition has been known about for several hundred years (the description of the effects of the battle on a soldier are in Book 6 of Herodotus' book History). Hippocrates himself mentions the impact of frightenieng battles dreams on former soldiers.

Later descriptions include Jean Froissart's 1388 account of the effects that fighting in the Hundred Years War had on one Pierre de Beam, brother of the Comte de Foix. De Beam is recorded as being unable to sleep near his wife and children because he so often woke at night from a nightmare and siezed a sword before strting to fight (imagined) oncoming enemies.

This sort of reaction to battle experience was well-known enough that Shakespeare could mention it in Romeo and Juliet (see Mercutio's account of Queen Mab in Act 1, scene 4). Goethe mentions similar reactions in his autobiographical account of the Battle of Valmy in 1792. What is interesting is that it then seems to have got forgotten or ignored, to be re-discovered during the Second World War.

One other other modern difference which is worth mentioning is how much faster we can now get people out of the theatre of war. Previously (and even as late as the Korean War) the journey home took weeks, which meant there was time to work through and somehow share those experiences with your mates. This probably elped many people cope with what they had seen and experienced. That isn't as true now (the trips home from Afghanistan and Africa took me less than 24 hours) and so there isn't time to work things through. This is most clearly seen in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, where many soldiers came home on a long flight and were effectively dumped at home with no support.
It was only really during the Second World War that people began to more widely acknowledge that shell shock (what we now know as PTSD) was a legitimate condition

This line is not true. The Jardine clinic in Edinburgh treated shell shock victims of the first world war, including Wilfred Owen (my favourite war poet, possibly all time favourite poet). I had the privilege during my training to visit the site of the Jardine Clinic in the weeks before it was sold off and converted into a university campus. The story is one of the oddest from my training.

Myself and a female co-student on a psychiatry rotation were offered the chance to see the place before it closed, and went there one afternoon in late November. In Edinburgh at that time of year dusk can be anytime after 2pm, weather depending. The grounds are magnificent and cover several acres, with a handful of large, red sandstone pavillions set a couple of hundred meters from each other on short cut lawns. We went to the main central building up an imposing staircase. The bell tower no longer housed the bell that used to summon the doctor out of hours, but retained the tiled roof five storeys up. The entrance lobby was empty; a wide wooden stair rose in front of us. To the left were double doors that led into the great hall. It was empty save for a black grand piano in one corner and an impressively antlered stag head mounted above a fireplace fully ten feet wide. The room wouldn't have been out of place in a castle (or fantasy story).

Up the stairs we went to wards deserted. The last of them had bedside tables still set with NHS standard cutlery. Some of the beds had their blankets folded back as though some tidy person had just risen from them. Only clean swept floors and polished doorknobs suggested any preparation for their vacant state. Or maybe standards of day to day cleanliness were just better in hospitals in those days. Leaving the Marie Celeste unit we wandered down a back stair - likely used only by the staff I guessed - until we reached the basement level. Here we discovered that those separated pavillions were connected by underground tunnels, and our curiosity got the better of us. We had to explore them. For reasons I could not fathom, and have still not discovered, the tunnels were not straight, but curved. The radius of curvature was such that we could see no further than ten feet ahead or behind. At head height along one wall ran large diameter pipes that radiated heat, but also creaked and made other noises at random interval. When we were halfway along one of these we heard in the distance behind us the unmistakeable sound of the piano being played in the great hall. Feeling quite spooked we kept going and came up in the east pavillion. This had clearly been empty for longer than the central block. Most doors were locked and we were forced to retrace our steps below ground to find an openable exit. In the whole of our trip the only person we saw was an old man with a wheelbarrow in the distance as we were leaving.

Fifteen years later I had occasion to go back there for the psychiatry ball, held in that same great hall, watched by the same stag's head. Highlight of the evening was the auction for charity of a set of Harry Potter books signed by the author. Of the piano there was no sign.
 

Mad Swede

Auror
It was only really during the Second World War that people began to more widely acknowledge that shell shock (what we now know as PTSD) was a legitimate condition

This line is not true. The Jardine clinic in Edinburgh treated shell shock victims of the first world war, including Wilfred Owen (my favourite war poet, possibly all time favourite poet). I had the privilege during my training to visit the site of the Jardine Clinic in the weeks before it was sold off and converted into a university campus.
Yes, that line is true. William Halse Rivers (the man who treated both Owen and Sassoon at what became known as the Craiglockhart War Hospital) was in a real minority of doctors during and immediately after the First World War. Most doctors took the view that Lewis Yealland held, which was that shell shock was a sign of lack of duty and/or discipline best treated by bullying and threatening those suffering from it. The so-called treatment methods used by Yealland are now regarded as deeply unethical. Fortunately the British produced a report after the war regarding the treatment of shell shock (Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into "Shell-Shock", 1922) which set down some principles about how the condition should treated. Unfortunately this wasn't widely read or accepted either by some doctors or by many officers, as shown by what happened to Spike Milligan during the Second World War - his biographical book Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall is quite illuminating. The other much more infamous example is Patton's reaction to seeing a shell shocked soldier in hospital, which led directly to many US soldiers having the words "lack of intestinal fortitude" added to their records...

The first time that combat stress reaction appears as an official diagnosis is in the first (1952) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Since then recognition and treatment have advanced hugely.

For those who want to read Rivers'own words on the diagnosis and treatment of shell shock I recommend The Repression of War Experience, the paper he delivered to the Section of Psychiatry of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1917, and also Psychiatry and the War, published in Science in 1919.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Mad Swede was there recognition of PTSD before, say, 1800? I know the condition existed, that we have evidence for that. I rather imagine that some specific issues can be tied to the advent of specific technologies (cannons, machine guns, gas), but more generally long-term effects of battle on the psyche of individual soldiers, and those effects must have been observed.

What I'm asking is, do we have records of those observations? I would not expect to find a particular name for it, but maybe a shared vocabulary or common themes?
 

Aldarion

Archmage
Mad Swede was there recognition of PTSD before, say, 1800? I know the condition existed, that we have evidence for that. I rather imagine that some specific issues can be tied to the advent of specific technologies (cannons, machine guns, gas), but more generally long-term effects of battle on the psyche of individual soldiers, and those effects must have been observed.

What I'm asking is, do we have records of those observations? I would not expect to find a particular name for it, but maybe a shared vocabulary or common themes?
Not on a systematic scale, I think. Preindustrial battles simply weren't as hard on the psyche as World War I battles - there is a difference between enduring day or two of close-quarters fighting and enduring day, weeks or months of more-or-less constant artillery bombardment.

Condition existed, of course, but was not so frequent as to be "officially" recognized (though IIRC there are some accounts in medieval times indicating PTSD in soldiers). Hence why the early term for PTSD was "shell shock".
 
Not on a systematic scale, I think. Preindustrial battles simply weren't as hard on the psyche as World War I battles - there is a difference between enduring day or two of close-quarters fighting and enduring day, weeks or months of more-or-less constant artillery bombardment.

Condition existed, of course, but was not so frequent as to be "officially" recognized (though IIRC there are some accounts in medieval times indicating PTSD in soldiers). Hence why the early term for PTSD was "shell shock".
Shells were were first seen in Europe (coming from China) around the C14 but were not widely used until the end of the C18 when they were used (I believe) by the British and the French in their long running wars.

Some of those battles were horrific even by WWI and II standards - especially Copenhagen (!!!) Badajoz, Salamanca, Waterloo, Trafalgar and those are the first times individual soldiers would have been consistently subjected to days and weeks of constant shelling. Going back to my theory - constant shelling is something against which the individual soldier could not fight back (unless he was a gunner).

That feeling of helplessness, I suspect, had something to do with the mental impact.

I have no science for this. It's just a hypothesis.
 

Mad Swede

Auror
Mad Swede was there recognition of PTSD before, say, 1800? I know the condition existed, that we have evidence for that. I rather imagine that some specific issues can be tied to the advent of specific technologies (cannons, machine guns, gas), but more generally long-term effects of battle on the psyche of individual soldiers, and those effects must have been observed.

What I'm asking is, do we have records of those observations? I would not expect to find a particular name for it, but maybe a shared vocabulary or common themes?
Not that I know of, at least not as a medical condition. There are several records of observations as I mentioned in an earlier post in this thread but there was no recognition of it as a condition. Mind you, there wasn't much known or recognised about psychiatric conditions as a whole before 1800, so this is no real surprise.

There was a theory that the condition was linked to exposure to things like intense shelling and other effects of modern weapons, but Rivers' work during and after the First Wolrd War showed that this was not the case.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Thanks, Mad Swede. It's more or less what I surmised. As historians (and sociologists) have found, just because a thing isn't found in the records is not sufficient proof that it never happened. The usual trend is, successive generations of historians find ways to read the texts more closely, unearthing indirect evidence that can support another way of understanding. That might happen with "battle fatigue".

I like that term over others, at least for the Middle Ages, because while there was not the trauma of shelling for days and weeks, there were definitely very stressful conditions. Even a day-long battle contains enough to traumatize someone for life. Then there were expeditions to foreign lands, with a myriad of difficulties. Or campaigns that lasted for months. One can see signs of stress, for example, in the Anabasis.

Another possibility, though, is that whatever the effects on individuals, people around them either assumed that's the way Bob always was, or that battle brought it out in him, or even that that was simply how soldiers behave when not soldiering. No need to take note of what is ordinary and expected.

So now, as I often do, I am thinking how combat might affect non-humans in non-human ways. Lots of room there for exploration.
 
Thanks, Mad Swede. It's more or less what I surmised. As historians (and sociologists) have found, just because a thing isn't found in the records is not sufficient proof that it never happened. The usual trend is, successive generations of historians find ways to read the texts more closely, unearthing indirect evidence that can support another way of understanding. That might happen with "battle fatigue".

I like that term over others, at least for the Middle Ages, because while there was not the trauma of shelling for days and weeks, there were definitely very stressful conditions. Even a day-long battle contains enough to traumatize someone for life. Then there were expeditions to foreign lands, with a myriad of difficulties. Or campaigns that lasted for months. One can see signs of stress, for example, in the Anabasis.

Another possibility, though, is that whatever the effects on individuals, people around them either assumed that's the way Bob always was, or that battle brought it out in him, or even that that was simply how soldiers behave when not soldiering. No need to take note of what is ordinary and expected.

So now, as I often do, I am thinking how combat might affect non-humans in non-human ways. Lots of room there for exploration.
As historians (and sociologists) have found, just because a thing isn't found in the records is not sufficient proof that it never happened.

Psychiatry as known today is a young discipline within medicine. The father of modern psychiatry is Emille Kraeplin who took detailed notes on his patients with what we now call psychosis (delusional beliefs and hallucinations). Over a decade or so of such note taking he observed that some patients had a persistent psychotic state, and another group had episodic illness with strong mood fluctuations. On the basis of that he separated out dementia praecox, which was later renamed schizophrenia, from what eventually became manic depression and then bipolar disorder.
Freud was a neurologist frustrated by his inability to know what was happening in the brains of his patients. He developed his well known ideas as a framework to try and fill in the blanks. His theories held a position of significance in psychiatry really right up to the development of brain imaging. That ushered in an era of circuits, neural networks, receptors, which dominate current research in mental illness.

Of course all those modern developments are absent from records more than a few decades old, yet the phenomena to which they refer existed and were talked about, treated long before that.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
By coincidence I did find a phrase just today. I'm still plowing through a biography of Napoleon. In the chapter on the retreat from Russia, the author notes that a few survivors of a particular battalion were sent on "reform leave", which the author speculates--and I agree--was a kind of recognition of PTSD.

This is the sort of thing on which historical research is built. We know much about the retreat. We know much about PTSD. But it's only recently that historians have even thought to go looking for evidence of "battle fatigue" in earlier centuries. The narrative gets constructed out of little pieces like the one I mentioned, found not infrequently in the original sources but by chance while reader the work of other historians. Looked at one way, we've already said it all. Look at another way, there's still much to do. Or at least a dissertation or two!
 

Mad Swede

Auror
By coincidence I did find a phrase just today. I'm still plowing through a biography of Napoleon. In the chapter on the retreat from Russia, the author notes that a few survivors of a particular battalion were sent on "reform leave", which the author speculates--and I agree--was a kind of recognition of PTSD.

This is the sort of thing on which historical research is built. We know much about the retreat. We know much about PTSD. But it's only recently that historians have even thought to go looking for evidence of "battle fatigue" in earlier centuries. The narrative gets constructed out of little pieces like the one I mentioned, found not infrequently in the original sources but by chance while reader the work of other historians. Looked at one way, we've already said it all. Look at another way, there's still much to do. Or at least a dissertation or two!
This is one of the things that I as a ruthlessly practical military engineer and veteran object to about some research. Here you're suggesting that historians should go looking for evidence. But, the problem is that we have only tertiary and (sometimes) secondary records to look at when looking for records of what we interpret as cases of PTSD being recognised and somehow treated. We don't have primary evidence. That to me makes it difficult to build a convincing case to support the suggestion that PTSD was known or recognised in Napoleonic or earlier periods. That isn't the same as saying that what we now call PTSD didn't occur, only that we can't prove that it was recognised as a condition.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Primary evidence has its own problems, as I'm sure you know well.

Here, I'm not suggesting that PTSD was recognized as such, but that there might have been a recognition of *something* that was across multiple cases. They would of course have their own language. Indeed, they might not have had a term at all, but only have some consistency of description that indicates to the researcher that they recognized a condition. The doctor or even member in a town, might say, oh there's another one, and make some connection with having gone through the wars.

Indeed, even consistency of terms can be misleading if not handled carefully. I've mentioned before how I can say "king" in a novel and know that a dozen readers are going to put a dozen different spins on that word. So it is in the original sources. Marc Bloch has a marvelous essay on the term servus and how slippery that word is in the sources. Same goes for miles, and the insightful treatment of it by Bernie Bachrach.

I'm betting historians will ferret out more insights on this topic, pre-modern, though not without the usual scholarly quarrels!
 

Aldarion

Archmage
This is one of the things that I as a ruthlessly practical military engineer and veteran object to about some research. Here you're suggesting that historians should go looking for evidence. But, the problem is that we have only tertiary and (sometimes) secondary records to look at when looking for records of what we interpret as cases of PTSD being recognised and somehow treated. We don't have primary evidence. That to me makes it difficult to build a convincing case to support the suggestion that PTSD was known or recognised in Napoleonic or earlier periods. That isn't the same as saying that what we now call PTSD didn't occur, only that we can't prove that it was recognised as a condition.
Primary evidence has its own problems, as I'm sure you know well.

Here, I'm not suggesting that PTSD was recognized as such, but that there might have been a recognition of *something* that was across multiple cases. They would of course have their own language. Indeed, they might not have had a term at all, but only have some consistency of description that indicates to the researcher that they recognized a condition. The doctor or even member in a town, might say, oh there's another one, and make some connection with having gone through the wars.

Indeed, even consistency of terms can be misleading if not handled carefully. I've mentioned before how I can say "king" in a novel and know that a dozen readers are going to put a dozen different spins on that word. So it is in the original sources. Marc Bloch has a marvelous essay on the term servus and how slippery that word is in the sources. Same goes for miles, and the insightful treatment of it by Bernie Bachrach.

I'm betting historians will ferret out more insights on this topic, pre-modern, though not without the usual scholarly quarrels!
History, by and large, is interpretation. It is basically solving a puzzle, except half the pieces are missing and remainder are dirty and damaged. Even "primary" evidence is itself largely interpretation of those that had written it, and evidence that is not itself interpretation (material evidence) requires historian's interpretation to be usable.

What we call PTSD today was in earlier times considered an aspect of more general battle fatigue. And cases of combat stress were recognized by, for example, authors of Byzantine military manuals - and these recommended (or rather insisted) that commanders take steps to ensure psychological well-being of their soldiers. This was often done through means that we today may have difficult time recognizing - priests and having a mass before a battle served something of a psychological support role for the troops that went beyond their nominal religious role, but I wonder how many historians will have recognized it as such.

So the fact that fighting took a psychological toll was recognized, and steps were taken to adress it. How deep this recognition went, and whether there was specific treatment for what we today would term PTSD, is something I cannot answer. So far I have found no indication of PTSD-specific treatments however.
 
This discussion has made me wonder about the glorification of battle (for want of a better term). When studying history in high school, the sentiment surrounding wars seemed to be that up to roughly the first world war, wars and battles were seen as a glorius thing. A chance for young men to prove themselves and possible get right from loot and so on. And that the horrors of the first world war changed all that.

For all the historians here, how well does that narrative actually hold up? I realize that the actuallity of a battle, where you're in a life-and-death situation could be much the same. But what about the overall perception of it?
 
I think when fantasy references ‘glory’ and maybe even the concept of ‘honour’, they are referencing medieval or pre-historical sentiments of warriorhood and battle, and those sort of things appear in Beowulf for example, but I’m not convinced that’s what they actually mean. I think people still viewed battle and war in the same light as we do where violence breeds more violence, but of course many young impressionable men were willing themselves into battle on the false pretences of ‘glory’. Sometimes I think it must have been true, and people really believed in it as a driving force for battle and winning said battle. IDK, we need a mad swede, Lowan or Skip to chime in.
 
This discussion has made me wonder about the glorification of battle (for want of a better term). When studying history in high school, the sentiment surrounding wars seemed to be that up to roughly the first world war, wars and battles were seen as a glorius thing. A chance for young men to prove themselves and possible get right from loot and so on. And that the horrors of the first world war changed all that.

For all the historians here, how well does that narrative actually hold up? I realize that the actuallity of a battle, where you're in a life-and-death situation could be much the same. But what about the overall perception of it?
That is a massive question which would probably take a multi-volume set to address...

Here's my nutshell...

It's based on England because that has been my study and there are several (relevant) phases.

The first is the warlord/feudal system. The fighting was done by aristocracy who wanted to keep their titles and possessions - their henchmen who wanted to keep their exalted positions - and everyone else that owed them service and could be pressed into battle (before going back to work on the harvest). War was very much an economic transaction - given the importance of land. No-one was heroic, except for the aristocracy and the best of their henchmen - who often were rewarded with land and titles themselves.

The next phase (after the Jacobean dynasty) saw less of the aristocracy fighting and more of the gentry. The army was remodelled under Cromwell and the servicing of the growing empire required a professional army and navy. War was still fundamentally economic and because so many of the gentry had a vested interest in the fruits of empire, soldiers became famous (glorious) celebrities and were feted in society. Except the ranks, of course. The ranks were often the sweepings of the gaols - given a choice of hanging or the army or transportation to the colonies. (Some actually chose hanging.) They were expected to die quickly in any case as the main military tactic was to march very slowly toward the guns. For the gentry and lesser aristocracy (like Wellington) the army was a place to get famous. It was possible to purchase your way up to high rank (as Wellington did in the early part of his career.)

By the time of WW1 - when the nature and locus of fame had profoundly changed and the emergence of horror weapons made the chances of survival more problematic - and the purchase system had been abandoned - the army was far less attractive to the aristocracy and the gentry so became the domain of the professionals and the volunteers. Patriotism, of course, was waved in the faces of the potential volunteers in times of great need, but the glory had very much been tarnished by that point.

I don't really know what the story is now. Mad Swede would have a view. From what I've seen the only place for glory now is within the regiments and units themselves and their traditions. The army is a place for professionals and scientists and is very secret. No-one really talks about it and there are no famous soldiers unless they get busted doing something wrong.

So there you go - a thousand years of military perception and psychological profile. The only thing that hasn't changed is that war is always - fundamentally - about economics. Wanting what others have got or defending what you have.
 

Aldarion

Archmage
This discussion has made me wonder about the glorification of battle (for want of a better term). When studying history in high school, the sentiment surrounding wars seemed to be that up to roughly the first world war, wars and battles were seen as a glorius thing. A chance for young men to prove themselves and possible get right from loot and so on. And that the horrors of the first world war changed all that.

For all the historians here, how well does that narrative actually hold up? I realize that the actuallity of a battle, where you're in a life-and-death situation could be much the same. But what about the overall perception of it?
I'd say it is reasonably accurate.

Now, there are several aspects of that "reasonably accurate". One is that much of what we know about the premodern warfare had been filtered through the lends of the warrior aristocracy, and thus may not actually reflect wider social consensus. Yet even in much simpler societies and those where warfare is heavily democratized, we see that war is seen as something of a proof of adulthood for young men. Much like hunting in hunter-gatherer societies - which is logical since both involve danger, and hunters are warriors by default anyhow. So it is reasonable to assume that glorification of battle was in fact more widespread than just narrow aristocratic circles whose thoughts we, by and large, do have recorded.

Second is that there were always variations rooted in cultural differences. You can see this most obviously when comparing the Latin Europe and the Byzantine Empire. Former combined Christianity with barbarian warrior ethos to create what we know as chivalry - they saw warfare in part as a necessary evil, but also as something inherently honorable. This brought about the idea of the holy war, as war that does not have even the usual downsides of sinning by killing Christians. It also brought about the exact glorification of warfare that you describe. Byzantines however saw warfare - even defensive warfare - as something evil. A necessary evil, perhaps, but still evil. Concept of a "holy" war, be it Muslim Jihad or a Christian Crusade, was wholly foreign to them. Ironically, this sometimes made them much more ruthless: for Byzantines, war was simply a job, something that they wanted done as quickly and efficiently as possible. But there was little "glorification" of warfare in the Byzantine Empire, though they did see soldiers with respect due to self-sacrificial nature of their calling.
 
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