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Authors: Robert Ryan

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BOOK: The Dead Can Wait
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The DDMS was the man to impress here. Watson stole a glance at him. Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Crocker – ‘Jumbo’ behind his back – was a big man in all departments, with ears you could rig and use as sails.

Once pipes and cigarettes had been lit, Watson cleared his throat. ‘Thank you for coming, gentlemen. I hope I can make this worthwhile for you. As you know, I have no claim to be an expert on neurasthenics or psychiatry. I am, by training, a humble general practitioner.’

‘Quite,’ said one of the officers, as if this settled the matter. Watson moved on, ignoring his comment.

‘However, I have had some first-hand experience of conditions on the front line. I have been underneath a bombardment. I say this without any sense of boasting or superiority.’ He paused. He wasn’t trying to make his audience feel inadequate. He knew Crocker had toured the battlefields, had witnessed barrages, but he was fairly sure the other members of the committee had never left the British Isles. ‘It was my own experiences of the after-effects of exposure to modern warfare that led to my interest in the subject of war nerves.’ He had to be careful not to say ‘shell shock’. It was the deputy director sitting before him who had banned the phrase. ‘I experienced nightmares, sudden changes of mood and unwarranted aggression, even towards old, trusted friends, and a withdrawal from the world. The symptoms lasted many weeks after my return home, yet I knew what I had was but a mild bout. When I recovered somewhat, I became concerned by the case of a young man I met out there at the front.’

Watson raised his voice and addressed the technician sitting in the back row of the theatre. ‘If we can dim the lights . . .? Thank you.’

Blocks of ceiling bulbs thumped off in sequence, until the only illumination was the chinks of light bleeding around the edges of the blackout curtain and the reading lamp on the podium. Watson heard the audience shift in their seats in anticipation.

‘If you will roll the film, please . . .’

The projector, hidden in the closet-like room that usually held the magic lantern, clanked and whirred into life, sending a smoke-laden beam to the front of the theatre. A bright square full of dancing squiggles appeared on the screen.

They were replaced by the image of an agitated man, seated in a bare room, apparently being pestered by an invisible swarm of bees, his arms flailing at thin air.

‘This, gentleman, is Captain Fairley. A young man I first met in the trenches in Belgium, when he was a perfectly rational, upright and brave’ – he emphasized this last word, pausing for effect – ‘young man. This is him a few weeks after returning to England, having suffered a total nervous collapse after being trapped out in no man’s land by a German advance and suffering bombardment from both sides, before he could make his own way back to the British lines. This was the second occasion he had been left isolated out there for an extended period. Once is enough for many men.’

He let them watch the tormented captain for a few moments longer, taking in the look on his face that suggested he was party to some invisible horror.

‘This, believe it or not, is him after an improvement. Before this he had ataxia and was also prone to fits of violence.’ Watson’s hand moved to his throat of its own accord before he snatched it away. He thought it best not to mention the physical attack on his person by Fairley at their encounter. It had been a brief spike of rage and within moments Fairley had deflated like a punctured blimp.


Fairley stood and, still batting at his aerial tormentors, he began to walk, showing the strange, disconnected gait that characterized many of the sufferers. He looked like a puppet whose strings had been cut, jerking and twisting as he struggled to take three or four steps. Watson could sense the discomfort from those watching. Even after a dozen viewings, Watson’s own stomach knotted at the sight of the soldier.

The film ended with more squiggles, before it shut off. ‘Lights, please,’ said Watson.

The audience blinked as the hall was illuminated once more.

‘Is that it?’ asked Armstrong Jones. ‘Has he progressed any further in his recovery?’

‘Judge for yourselves. Gentlemen,’ said Watson, ‘I’d like you to meet Captain Fairley.’

The technician came down the stairs two at a time, a smile on his face, his hand outstretched to greet Watson. He took it and pumped it vigorously.

‘I’m sorry for the s-s-subterfuge,’ said Fairley, turning to the committee. ‘B-b-but we thought it would show the progress I have m-m-made, thanks to Dr Watson.’

‘Well, young man,’ said Crocker, ‘how do you feel now?’

‘Better,’ said Fairley.

‘That is,’ said Watson, quickly, ‘better than he was. Captain Fairley won’t mind me saying this, but he still has moments of . . . let’s call it

Fairley nodded his agreement.

‘But, sooner or later, you’ll be fit enough to return to the front?’ asked Armstrong Jones. ‘Not discharged to live on some pension?’

Fairley swallowed hard. ‘I suppose—’

‘I’m not sure the object of the exercise, the ultimate aim, is simply to return the shell—the damaged soldier to the front, is it?’ asked Watson.

A few throats were cleared. ‘This committee was set up with that purpose,’ said Crocker. ‘The number of cases of war neuroses is having a serious impact on manpower.’

‘Really?’ asked Watson, tetchily. He had to control his temper. ‘I thought that was German machine guns. How many died on the 1st of July this year?’

Every man knew the answer to that. News had leaked out slowly about the scale of losses at the Battle of Albert, the first phase of the Somme offensive. But the number of telegrams delivered to families across the country told the story the newspapers wouldn’t, at first, admit. Around 19,000 thousand killed, close to 60,000 casualties all told. And that was just day one. And just on one side.

‘All the more reason,’ said Armstrong Jones, ‘for us to send back men who are not physically injured.’

‘Ah, but they
injured,’ said Professor Miller, one of the civilian doctors. He was a wiry man with a thick thatch of steel-grey hair and a mouth permanently tightened in disapproval.

‘Exactly,’ said Watson, brightening. ‘Although not physically—’

‘I disagree,’ snapped Miller. ‘Nearly all war neurosis is caused by damage to the peripheral nerves due to concussion and the carbon monoxide—’

Watson couldn’t listen to such piffle. He banged the lectern. ‘Excuse me, Professor Miller. That is nonsense. This man had no nerve damage.’

Miller began flexing his hands in the air, as if conducting a particularly intricate piece of music. ‘But his walk, his co-ordination—’

‘Was not due to a physical damage.’ Watson turned to Fairley. ‘Could you just . . .’

The captain took four confident strides across the room, and the same number back.

‘Damaged nerves do not recover like that. Not in this time scale. Would you agree?’

‘It’s impressive,’ agreed Miller, albeit reluctantly.

‘What we could not capture in the film is Captain Fairley’s voice. Like many patients suffering from war nerves, he began to speak in an entirely alien accent. In his case, Scottish.’

Fairley blushed and studied his feet.

‘Scottish?’ asked Miller.

‘We think that is part of the flight syndrome,’ said Watson. ‘Of trying to inhabit another body, any body, that might not possess the same memories. One of the captain’s first physicians was a Scot. When Fairley left that hospital, he took the man’s accent with him.’

‘So, Captain Fairley,’ said Crocker, ‘let’s clear this up once and for all. Do you foresee a day when you can return to active service?’

Watson saw the ripple of a twitch spread up one cheek and noted the clenched fist. He knew what that indicated. A sudden flash of memory – often visual, sometimes auditory or olfactory – of the trenches and no man’s land had bubbled up, like gas from a flooded shell hole.

‘I h-h-hope to be able to serve my country again, yes.’

If any of the committee spotted the evasion, they gave no sign.

‘Good man,’ said the DDMS with a series of approving nods. ‘Good man.’

Watson spoke through gritted teeth. ‘Gentlemen, I can’t help thinking we are seeing this from different perspectives. We are doing something terrible to our young men, something not widely recognized before this war. We should be concerned about returning them to life, not returning them to that . . .’ – he pointed as if the front were just beyond the wall behind him – ‘hell out there, to be shot and gassed all over again.’

An uncomfortable silence fell over his audience. Watson realized he had shouted the last sentence. He adjusted his tie.

‘Next film, please, Fairley,’ he instructed.

‘Sir.’ The captain, glad to be out of the limelight, bounded up the stairs and entered the projection box again.

‘Are you going to share the secret,’ asked Professor Miller, his tone more conciliatory, ‘of how you achieved such results, Major Watson?’

Watson pointed to the stack of paper on a table near the door. He licked his lips and kept his voice level. ‘There are the case notes, which you can browse at your leisure. The fact is that this neurosis is not fixed in its manifestations, but rather is different in every victim. What they have in common is intense shame, anxiety, exhaustion, hatred of the enemy and fear. There is a loneliness, because he has absented himself from his comrades, and a crushing sense of failure to do his duty. And, most importantly, there is the loss of his sense of being a man. This isn’t due to weak nerves or a predisposition to the condition.’ He caught the eye of Dr Jacobs, a man with a face made up of a series of baggy pouches, who had written extensively on inherent character traits that meant one soldier suffered war shock while his comrade seemed immune. ‘In fact, such a syndrome was described in the American Civil War, which in many ways was the first modern conflict, with rail-mounted mortars and primitive machine guns. And Russian officers displayed symptoms of what their German doctors called
in the war with Japan.’

‘Your Captain Fairley was, though, what I would classify as a sensitive type, I think you will agree,’ said Jacobs, who had a reputation, along with his mentor, Sir John Collie, as an expert in malingering.

Watson raised his eyebrows and his voice. ‘Play the film, please.’

‘One moment, Major Watson,’ interrupted Crocker. ‘Who exactly made the moving pictures of these subjects?’

‘A Pathé cameraman.’

‘Pathé?’ Crocker sounded genuinely alarmed. ‘I do hope such images will not be part of the Animated Gazette at the picture palaces any time soon, Major? Think of morale. People might assume this is in some way normal.’

‘Charles Pathé is an old friend,’ Watson said. Actually, Charles Pathé was an old client of Holmes’s, only too happy to lend assistance. ‘The films belong to me. There are no copies.’

‘Very well,’ grunted Crocker, mollified. ‘Continue.’

It was a similar performance to the first: a badly damaged man trying to perform simple tasks, buttoning up his shirt, tying his shoelaces, and collapsing in frustration at the enormity of the problem. He then began to walk, but with each step he ducked or swerved, sometimes dropping to the floor for a second, before springing up again. He was dodging imaginary bullets and shells. The final image was of the soldier prone once more, hands over his head, waiting for the phantom barrage to pass.

‘This is Corporal Donnelly. Also a Wykehamist, like Fairley. As you know, Winchester College is very well represented among the officer class. But Donnelly preferred to enter the army in the ranks, rather than as an officer. He joined the Royal Irish Rifles and was on day one of the Somme. Under heavy fire, he rescued three wounded colleagues and then went back to destroy the machine-gun position that had killed so many of his comrades, which he did, with Mills bombs and then rifle. There are those who think he deserves a Victoria Cross. I doubt, Dr Jacobs, whether this man was a sensitive type. If he was, we could do with a few thousand more of them, perhaps.’

‘It looks like False Evacuation Syndrome to me,’ said Jacobs, sniffily. This was his own invention, the idea that a psychological condition, akin to shirking one’s duty, could be feigned in order to get back to Blighty. He considered it the new equivalent of chewing cordite to mimic a heart condition and that it was contagious among ‘weak-willed’ units of the New Army. ‘This is just a pantomime act.’

‘It didn’t raise much of a smile when I was in the audience,’ countered Watson.

‘And now?’ Crocker asked. ‘Where is the patient now?’

‘Lights,’ instructed Watson, as the short film flicked to an end. ‘Donnelly was “other ranks”,’ he continued, careful not to snarl at the committee. ‘Not for him the country rest home or the “special” wing. No, he was sent to a “restoration” unit at Netley Hospital, where they live in tin huts and are subject to military discipline, starting with full kit inspection at six thirty in the morning, with route marches, drill and mock combat, all designed, so I was told, to help them “rediscover their masculinity”. His family sent him regular parcels of Dr Hartmann’s Antineurasthin, which he drank in great quantities. And which, as you know, contains little more than egg white and alcohol. I did intend to bring Corporal Donnelly along today.’


Again, Watson found himself fighting to keep a level tone. ‘But he hanged himself two days ago.’

The silence was filled by the ticking of the clock at the rear of the hall. ‘Ah. That is tragic. But what is your point, Watson?’ asked Crocker.

Time to be reasonable,
Watson decided. ‘We need a different approach to these afflictions, especially for the other ranks. Charles Myers has done some good work in this area.’ There was a harrumph from one of the audience. Myers was the army’s Specialist in Nervous Shock, and he, too, was beginning to think the ‘robust’ approach to shell shock was counterproductive. ‘These men need to see their family, their sweethearts, to be given constructive work. Not told over and over again how they are no longer men or soldiers.’

BOOK: The Dead Can Wait
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