Marching Belgian Carabiniers leading their dog-drawn machine gun carts towards the front line during the German invasion of Belgium; ca. 1914
“Marching toward the camera, and shot from a low angle, these Belgian Carabiniers are given a powerful sense of purpose by the photographer. Clean uniforms and neat formation say the soldiers have not come from battle.
These are the early days of WWI and Belgium has been invaded by the Germans in a surprise move. The Germans, 600,000 strong, were confident against the small Belgian Army of around 117,000, who were ill-equipped and poorly trained.
Yet the Belgians fought bravely in and around their fortifications in the Liège area. They held up the German advance for ten days before withdrawing on 16 August, when the Liège system finally fell. This delay would prove crucial to the French forces’ ability to re-organise and oppose the German push through Belgium into France.
King Albert I had ordered his Army to retreat to the ‘National Redoubt’ at Antwerp, consisting of over 40 forts and several lines of defence. Our Carabiniers are part of the force sent forward to cover that retreat by confronting the advancing Germans.
Marching out of the foggy background, the Carabiniers, with their Tyrolean hats and dog-drawn heavy machine-gun, look as if they are striding out of the past into the light of 20th century warfare. Almost like gentlemen in top hats taking their dogs for a walk.
The traditional dress of the Carabiniers, a light-infantry unit, was a tunic and greatcoat of a green so dark that the German nickname for them was the ‘black devils’. Many new recruits, however, were given a greatcoat of the more usual Belgian Army dark blue because of the chaotic supply situation. Despite their old-fashioned uniforms, their machine-guns were effective enough, though both soldier and dog were to pay a high price.
Although the main German forces bypassed Antwerp, four divisions had to be diverted to contain the Belgian forces there, further weakening the thrust into France. Antwerp did not fall until 9 October.”
The war came to the Philippines the same day it came to Hawaii and in the same manner – a surprise air attack. In the case of the Philippines, however, this initial strike was followed by a full-scale invasion of the main island of Luzon three days later. By early January, the American and Filipino defenders were forced to retreat to a slim defensive position on the island’s western Bataan Peninsula
The American and Filipino forces fought from an untenable position until formally surrendering to the Japanese on April 9. The Japanese immediately began to march some 76,000 prisoners (12,000 Americans, the remainder Filipinos) northward into captivity along a route of death. When three American officers escaped a year later, the world learned of the unspeakable atrocities suffered along the 60-mile journey that became known as the Bataan Death March.
Japanese butchery, disease, exposure to the blazing sun, lack of food, and lack of water took the lives of approximately 5,200 Americans along the way. Many prisoners were bayoneted, shot, beheaded or just left to die on the side of the road. “A Japanese soldier took my canteen, gave the water to a horse, and threw the canteen away,” reported one escapee. “The stronger were not permitted to help the weaker. We then would hear shots behind us.” The Japanese forced the prisoners to sit for hours in the hot sun without water. “Many of us went crazy and several died.”
The ordeal lasted five days for some and up to twelve days for others. Although the Japanese were unprepared for the large number of prisoners in their care, the root of the brutality lay in the Japanese attitude that a soldier should die before surrender. A warrior’s surrender meant the forfeiture of all rights to treatment as a human being.
After the war, the finger of blame pointed to General Masaharu Homma, commander of the Japanese troops in the Philippines. Tried for war crimes, he was convicted and executed by a firing squad on April 3, 1946.
“This was the First Murder”
Captain William Dyess was a fighter pilot stationed on Luzon when the Japanese invaded. Captured when the American forces on Bataan surrendered, he joined the Death March and was interned by the Japanese. In April 1943, Captain Dyess was one of three prisoners able to escape from their captors. Captain Dyess eventually made his way back to America where his story was published.
We join his story as he encounters his first atrocity of the March:
“The victim, an air force captain, was being searched by a three-star private. Standing by was a Jap commissioned officer, hand on sword hilt. These men were nothing like the toothy, bespectacled runts whose photographs are familiar to most newspaper readers. They were cruel of face, stalwart, and tall.
‘The private a little squirt, was going through the captain’s pockets. All at once he stopped and sucked in his breath with .a hissing sound. He had found some Jap yen.’
‘He held these out, ducking his head and sucking in his breath to attract notice. The big Jap looked at the money. Without a word he grabbed the captain by the shoulder and shoved him down to his knees. He pulled the sword out of the scabbard and raised it high over his head, holding it with both hands. The private skipped to one side.’
‘Before we could grasp what was happening, the black-faced giant had swung his sword. I remember how the sun flashed on it. There was a swish and a kind of chopping thud, like a cleaver going through beef’.
‘The captain’s head seemed to jump off his ‘shoulders. It hit the ground in front of him and went rolling crazily from side to side between the lines of prisoners.’
‘The body fell forward. I have seen wounds, but never such a gush of. blood as this. The heart continued to pump for a few seconds and at each beat there was another great spurt of blood. The white dust around our feet was turned into crimson mud. I saw the hands were opening and closing spasmodically. Then I looked away.’
‘When I looked again the big Jap had put up his sword and was strolling off. The runt who had found the yen was putting them into his pocket. He helped himself to the captain’s possessions.’
This was the first murder. . .”
Oriental Sun Treatment
As the prisoners were herded north they collided with advancing Japanese troops moving to the south, forcing a brief halt to the march:
“Eventually the road became so crowded we were marched into a clearing. Here, for two hours, we had our first taste of the oriental sun treatment, which drains the stamina and weakens the spirit.
The Japs seated us on the scorching ground, exposed to the full glare of the sun. Many of the Americans and Filipinos had no covering to protect their heads. I was beside a small bush but it cast no shade because the sun was almost directly above us. Many of the men around me were ill.
When I thought I could stand the penetrating heat no longer. I was determined to have a sip of the tepid water in my canteen. I had no more than unscrewed the top when the aluminum flask was snatched from my hands. The Jap who had crept up behind me poured the water into a horse’s nose-bag, then threw down the canteen. He walked on among the prisoners, taking away their water and pouring it into the bag. When he had enough he gave it to his horse.”
The parade of death continues its journey as its members inevitably succumb to the heat, the lack of food and the lack of water:
“The hours dragged by and, as we knew they must. The drop-outs began. It seemed that a great many of the prisoners reached the end of their endurance at about the same time. They went down by twos and threes. Usually, they made an effort to rise. I never can forget their groans and strangled breathing as they tried to get up. Some succeeded. Others lay lifelessly where they had fallen.
I observed that the Jap guards paid no attention to these. I wondered why. The explanation wasn’t long in coming. There was a sharp crackle of pistol and rifle fire behind us.
Skulking along, a hundred yards behind our contingent, came a ‘clean-up squad’ of murdering Jap buzzards. Their helpless victims, sprawled darkly against the white, of the road, were easy targets.
As members of the murder squad stooped over each huddled form, there would be an orange ‘flash in the darkness and a sharp report. The bodies were left where they lay, that other prisoners coming behind us might see them.
Our Japanese guards enjoyed the spectacle in silence for a time. Eventually, one of them who spoke English felt he should add a little spice to the entertainment.
‘Sleepee?’ he asked. ‘You want sleep? Just lie down on road. You get good long sleep!’
On through the night we were followed by orange flashes and thudding sounds.”
Arrival at San Fernando
Finally, after five days without food and limited water, the dwindling column arrives at its destination:
“The sun still was high in the sky when we straggled into San Fernando, a city of 36,000 population, and were put in a barbed wire compound similar to the one at Orani. We were seated in rows for a continuation of the sun treatment. Conditions here were the worst yet.
The prison pen was jammed with sick, dying, and dead American and Filipino soldiers. They were sprawled amid the filth and maggots that covered the ground. Practically all had dysentery. Malaria and dengue fever appeared to be running unchecked. There were symptoms of other tropical diseases I didn’t even recognize.
Jap guards had shoved the worst cases beneath the rotted flooring of some dilapidated building. Many of these prisoners already had died. The others looked as though they couldn’t survive until morning.
There obviously had been no burials for many hours.
After sunset Jap soldiers entered and inspected our rows.
Then the gate was opened again and kitchen corpsmen entered with cans of rice. We held our mess kits and again passed lids to those who had none. Our spirits rose. We watched as the Japs ladled out generous helpings to the men nearest the gate.
Then, without explanation, the cans were dragged away and the gate was closed. It was a repetition of the ghastly farce at Balanga. The fraud was much more cruel this time because our need. was vastly greater. In our bewildered state it took some time for the truth to sink in. When it did we were too discouraged even to swear.”
Dyess, William E., The Dyess Story (1943)
“The Bataan Death March, 1942,” EyeWitness to History
Early in the war, physicians began to handle cases of psychological breakdown, paralysis, and disturbing, uncontrolled physical behavior among men who had been in combat. C.S. Myers was one of the first to coin the term “shell shock,” as doctors assumed that artillery fire and the like had had caused concussion-like damage and possibly physical legions somewhere in the brain. Other doctors saw the same thing, but Myers discovered that many men experiencing these symptoms hadn’t been near artillery bombardments and so he tried to withdraw the term, but it stuck. The condition was called “soldier’s heart” in the American Civil War and “combat fatigue” in the Second World War, and now we call it PTSD. It’s not until 1980 that PTSD gets into the medical handbook as a legitimate syndrome, which means that doctors can treat it and that those who suffer from it can receive a pension.
- Why was it so difficult to pin down a definition for “shell shock?”
The medical profession of the time was conservative and relatively endogenous. Many of them thought that shell shock was a license for cowardice or a renunciation of “manliness,” which made it partly a problem of gender. It’s important to understand that although we usually think of PTSD as a psychological disability, it often manifests itself in physical ways. At the time, the conversion of mental symptoms to physical ones was called hysteria – a term reserved for women. This meant that men suffering from “hysteria” were transgressing Victorian gender norms, and we can see the stigma of this diagnosis clash with social conventions – only enlisted men were diagnosed with hysteria, while officers were diagnosed with “nervous breakdown.” The difference in diagnosis was paralleled by differences in treatment – treatment for enlisted men was largely punitive and coercive, while treatment for officers was based more on persuasion, sometimes through psychotherapy. Lest you think officers were in a better position, remember that the casualty rate for them was almost double that of enlisted men. Diagnosis and treatment were further complicated by the difficulty in identifying who legitimately had a problem and who was just trying to get away from the front. For some physicians, the solution was to make treatments more painful than returning to the front. For example, electric shock therapy could be used on mutes to try and stimulate the tongue so that they would make noise. In Austria, future Nobel Prize winner Julius Wagner Jauregg was accused of torturing his patients because he used electroconvulsive shock treatment to discourage malingering. In general, the war tore up the Hippocratic Oath because doctors became servants of armies that needed men to return to the front as soon as possible. Thus, the principal aim of doctors was to heal the injured enough to send them back to the front. This meant that if a soldier had a physical wound in addition to psychological symptoms, doctors would often treat the wound and then send the soldier back. Treatments were thus largely coercive in nature – there’s a famous French story in which an army doctor told a soldier “Yes, you are going to get this.” The enlisted man responded, “No, I’m not.” “Yes you are, I’m your officer, I gave you an order.” The exchange continued back and forth until the doctor moved to put the electrodes on his forehead and the enlisted man knocked him out. The soldier was then court-martialed, found guilty, fined one franc, and dismissed from the army without a war pension. This is the sort of thing that contributed to desertion, especially from men who felt they had no way out. As you can see, there were numerous problems with the medical profession’s approach to the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of shell shock. Consequently, we really don’t know how many suffered from it. The British Army recorded 80,000 cases, but this likely underestimates the actual number. Regardless, we can be sure that a significant number of those that went through artillery barrages and trench warfare experienced something like it at some point. While the number is significant, it’s important to remember that a minority of soldiers suffered shell shock, and consequently it does fit into the spectrum of individual refusal.
- What about executions?
In the late 90s there was a movement in England to apologize to those that refused to continue fighting in the war. There were 306 men that had been shot for cowardice or desertion and although the British government refused to make a formal apology, one of Tony Blair’s last acts as prime minister was to posthumously pardon them. The problem here should be obvious – it’s unclear how many were shell shocked and convicted of cowardice or desertion when they really were insane. There’s serious doubt as to how many men actually thought it through and decided that they couldn’t fight anymore and were going to leave. In the French case there was a terrible period at the beginning of the war when there were many summary executions. It’s a perfect example of what happened when officials and the professional army feared the effects that desertion might have on the rest of the men that had been mobilized at the start of the war. The French CiC, Joffre, felt that if offensives didn’t proceed because people were “allowed to act as cowards,” the rest of the mobilized army, made up of millions of reservists, would be contaminated. The upshot was the summary executions of numerous soldiers. The French parliament set up a special tribunal in 1932 to reexamine many of the cases, and a number of those who had been executed were subsequently pardoned, some on grounds that they had originally been denied the right of appeal despite being citizens. There is an important distinction to make here – French soldiers had the vote and could appeal to their representatives for better legal treatment, while millions of British soldiers could not since they were subjects of the crown. By the end of the war, every capital sentence required the approval of the French president.
- Why do we think PTSD began with “shell shock?”
World War I was the first to really introduce mental illness to mass society. The notion of traumatic memory that was brought back home and reappeared in literature helped normalize mental illness in the absence of consensus by the medical profession as to what it was. Although PTSD existed long before the First World War, the circumstances of the war pushed hundreds of thousands of men beyond the limits of human endurance. They faced weapons that denied any chance for heroism or courage or even military skill because the artillery weapons that caused 60 percent of all casualties were miles away from the battlefield. The enthusiastic men that signed up in 1914 were loyal, patriotic, and genuinely believed that they were fighting to defend their homeland. While they consented to national defense, it’s not clear that they consented to fight an industrialized assembly-line murderous war that emerged after 1914. Unlike previous wars, there was no beginning, middle, and end. Trench warfare was seen as a prelude to a breakout, but those breakouts never really occurred. Many men withdrew from the reality of the war into their own minds, and in this sense shell shock can be seen as a mutiny against the war. PTSD has numerous symptoms, but among them is the sense that the war the soldier lived had escaped from human control. This is why many PTSD sufferers are constantly reliving the trauma – the horror of combat never goes away and time has no hold over it. There’s a wonderful autobiography by Robert Graves called Good-Bye to All That; it’s one of the most famous World War I memoirs. Of course, the great irony is that he can’t say good-bye to all that – his life is constantly affected by his war experience, even 10 years after the war ended. There are so many great World War I memoirs, but I’d highly recommend the following: The Secret Battle by A.P. Herbert and The Case of Sergeant Grischa by Arnold Zweig Both deal with executions and the perversion of military justice during the war. I would also recommend The Legacy of the Great War and Remembering War. Both are by Jay Winter, who specializes in historical memory and World War I. (When he was teaching at Cambridge in the late 70s and early 80s, he traveled to Warwick hospital to study some of the records of patients that had been institutionalized there during the war for shell shock. When he went there, he discovered that there were still several men that had been kept in the asylum without treatment since the Great War. Once enthusiastic young men, psychologically crippled by the war, had spent the next 70 years constantly reliving their trauma, locked away from a society that didn’t understand what was wrong with them. I can’t think of a more horrible fate.)
This photo was staged for propaganda purposes, like many other Soviet World War II photos. (This photo was made after the encirclement of the German Sixth Army.)