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War Surgery and Medicine

Psychiatric Examinations of Soldiers for Courts Martial

Psychiatric Examinations of Soldiers for Courts Martial

There was, however, one not unimportant psychiatric service which was well carried out from 1941 onwards in the Middle East (and may be said actually to have commenced in the United Kingdom towards the end of 1940). The majority of soldiers awaiting trial by page 642 Field General Courts Martial for certain classes of military offence, particularly those involving failure to carry out assigned duties, were reported upon prior to court martial by one or other of the two medical officers with 2 NZEF who were qualified whole-time psychiatrists prior to enlistment. These reports were of considerable assistance to those responsible for the administration of military justice. Indirectly the psychiatric services rendered on these occasions contributed to complex stabilising factors underlying the maintenance of morale. In many cases the reporting officers found evidence of significant personality, intellectual, or other disabilities. Many of those so reported on were either regraded, recorded, or repatriated. Medical disposal of this group, who would otherwise have returned to unit after completion of punishment, was of considerable benefit to 2 NZEF. Furthermore, the possibility of simulation in these cases was reduced to a minimum.

Major G. B. Palmer reviewed a series of psychiatric reports made from October 1940 until February 1945. In the series rather more than 200 cases were reported on, either prior to FGCM and civil proceedings, or subsequent to completion of sentence, or for the purpose of determining whether a soldier undergoing sentence merited repatriation on medical grounds. They included one capital case, a soldier who stood trial at the Old Bailey in 1940 for the murder of a comrade, and who was found ‘not guilty on the grounds of insanity’ after a jury disagreement in the first trial.

By and large, very few of those examined were found to be suffering from a psychosis or gravely psychopathic personality. Those with positive psychiatric findings fell into four main groups:


A very small group with evidence of early psychosis or gross psychopathic personality (usually aggravated by alcohol).


A much larger group with clear evidence of borderline intelligence or less—classified in 2 NZEF as dullness and backwardness—with an antecedent history of some civilian instability with frequent shift of occupation, etc. They were obviously unable to adapt satisfactorily to army requirements. This group featured largely among those apprehended for offences associated with drunkenness, with or without AWL or technical desertion.


Another small group with psychopathic personality disorder aggravated in some instances with alcohol.


Situational stresses arising from changed status, for example, on promotion or reversion.

Major Palmer reported:

On the whole the sound common sense of unit C.O.'s insured an early elimination of psychopathic personalities. Incipient psychotic disturbances were similarly recognised as being medical aberrations in the early stages.

page 643

Soldiers whose inefficiency was primarily due to mental dullness and backwardness were by no means so readily detected. Though they might have done quite well in a fairly static or simple military environment such as that of a pioneer corps, they were quite unequal to the exacting demands of mobile warfare or work in technical units. They often resorted to alcohol for which they had little ‘head’ and were most inept in keeping out of trouble. The extraordinary latitude permitted where alcohol was concerned in most 2 N.Z.E.F. units often led to these cases being tolerated, without any suspicion of the underlying ‘cause’ being aroused, for much longer than was desirable. Very often it was disciplinary proceedings which attracted attention to the underlying intellectual handicap.

Among cases seen or reported on were several officers, only two of whom were required to face disciplinary proceedings, though their conduct might have been an occasion for other inquiry. Prior to the beginning of 1944 there may have been rather less attention given to the predictable capacity of the Middle East O.C.T.U. graduate to adapt himself to the new requirements of his commissioned status. In a number of instances good junior N.C.O.'s became indifferent W.O.'s and inadequate 2nd Lieutenants. The effect of marriage on such newly commissioned officers was sometimes seemingly disastrous from the viewpoint of their military efficiency.

Simulation of psychiatric symptoms in an attempt to evade disciplinary proceedings was not frequent among troops examined, and few can have been successful in sustained simulation. Some true neuroses had accepted summary jurisdiction in earlier offences.

It may be of interest to note that during the period 1946 to 1949 some 18 cases who had been examined in connection with F.G.C.M. proceedings were subsequently seen by me in New Zealand in Mount Eden Prison. Almost without exception these fell in the group of dullness and backwardness with associated alcoholism and psychopathic personalities. They were no more successful in civilian life than they were in the army.