Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War


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Peter Barham

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Although the shell-shocked British soldier of World War I has been a favored subject in both fiction and nonfiction, focus has been on the stories of officers, and the history of the rank-and-file servicemen who were psychiatric casualties has never been told. This profoundly moving book recounts the poignant, sometimes ribald histories of this neglected group for the first time.

Peter Barham draws on reports from the front lines, case histories, personal letters, and war pensions files to trace the lives and fortunes of a large cast of ex-servicemen who suffered mental breakdowns. He describes their confinements to asylums, the reactions of families to their relatives’ plight, the turmoil of the soldiers when they returned home—and the uphill struggle they faced trying to secure justice from the bureaucratic labyrinth that was the Ministry of Pensions. His book gives a new perspective to the impact of the Great War and to current controversies about disputed postwar maladies.

Peter Barham is a psychologist and social historian of mental health. He has published widely on mental health issues.

"This superb new study . . . is the first . . . to look in any detail at how the British authorities treated the many common soldiers who suffered mental breakdowns during the course of the war. . . . Barham's book stands as a memorial to these forgotten men. It also serves as a reminder that historians have a duty to remember those that posterity might have preferred to forget."—Steve Sturdy, American Historical Review


“[A] splendid (and splendidly titled) work of social history. . . . Barham combines biography with a far-reaching survey of mental-health trends in the early 20th Century. . . . Barham’s fascinating study is impressive in its scope.”—Matthew Price, Chicago Tribune

“This is a serious book about an important and topical subject. . . . Barham’s meticulous research allows him to identify shell-shocked soldiers and deftly and sympathetically deal with their individual experiences. The author’s erudition in this important contribution to the understanding of WWI, the history of psychiatric medicine, and British culture will make the book important to scholars, and his artful storytelling and graceful prose will make it popular with students and others interested in what war means to the lives of soldiers. Highly recommended.”—Choice

“A powerful offering at the Tomb of the Unknown Lunatic.”—The Independent

“A poignant reminder of the ordinary servicemen who sacrificed their sanity in fighting for their country.”—Mark Bostridge, The Independent on Sunday

“[Barham’s] indefatigable fossickings in the records have uncovered heartbreaking stories, but also signs of a long-deferential public jolted into political life.”—Michael Kerrigan, The Scotsman

“A special award for the most unexpectedly enthralling subject.”—Michael Kerrigan, The Scotsman

“Like many successful histories, this is a study that allows the past to speak for itself without the historian getting in the way.”—Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Telegraph

“Barham charts the saga(s) of bureaucratic indifference, callous ignorance and class prejudice with commendable restraint.”—Sian Busby, The Times (London)

"No historian could have brought to this subject the power and passion which Peter Barham sustains."—Ben Shephard, Times Literary Supplement


"Completely engaging and always thought-provoking. It must be compulsory reading for everyone interested in the history of shell shock and the impact of the Great War in Britain."—Fiona Reid, H-Net Reviews

"Excellent. . . . A detailed, comprehensive, and carefully researched study of the war's mental patients. . . The great strength of the book is in the detailed and often poignant personal stories of men like Albert Norris and George Collins, whom Barham has rescued from the oblivion of history."—George Robb, The Historian
ISBN: 9780300125115
Publication Date: August 21, 2007
464 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
29 b/w illus.