Review: Casualty Figures (Barrett)


Casualty Figures: How Five Men Survived The First World War.

This book could serve to fill in a few of the gaps in Broken Men, because it purports to tell the stories of several soldiers who suffered shell shock. One of the stories turns out to identify an anonymous shell shock case that is briefly noted in Broken Men. Unfortunately, the case that Barrett makes for some of the others having been so afflicted feels a bit strained.

One man appears to have had some pre-existing developmental disability and/or personality issues, as well as a possibility of brain damage after a bout of meningitis, which probably contributed more to his post-war coping problems. It also seems more likely that the unfortunate episode in Gallipoli which is attributed to shell shock, was actually due to the effects of the dysentery he suffered from at the time.

Another man comes across as swinging the lead instead of being a genuine shell shock case: indeed, in one quotation from his memoir, he actually reports what amounts to a plan to use shell shock as an excuse for his insubordinate behavior. Too clever by half, even in retirement (when he wrote his book), he destroyed any documentary evidence that he had possessed that could have cast factual doubt on his condition, and took plenty of time to edit and revise his very detailed account of selected episodes in his wartime experience. Although he was careful to maintain his claim of a few months of amnesia, his claimed ability during that period to devise an encrypted description of his treatment, calls into question his supposedly deficient mental state. He alone of the five went on to live a happy life after the war.

The experiences of the other three cases feel more genuine, although the author takes pains to cast a cloak of intrigue about the premature death of one of them, six years after the war, by expressing the opinion that the diagnosis of an acute illness as the cause of death was a cover-up.

Barrett undoubtedly did a great deal of research in Imperial War Museum archives to come up with the stories. Despite the documented insistence of some of the men’s family members that those whose records they donated to the IWM suffered from shell shock, there appears to be little official diagnostic evidence to support such claims. A number of other cases are briefly described in the book’s lengthy Introduction, and some of them sound more convincing, but there may not have been enough data available on them to spin what the author thought would make good yarns.

The organization of the writing is poor, with a great deal of jumping back and forth between time periods in the men’s lives: better editing would have helped maintain context and improved the flow. The scanty black-and-white illustrations are reproductions of works by a few wartime artists, including two by William Orpen. As long as the decision was taken to include them, they should have been rendered in color, for a more enlightening effect, because in shades of black, white and gray, they fall completely flat.

The book includes an end notes section, a short bibliography for further reading, and an index. It’s a sturdily bound small format hardcover book with dust jacket, and it makes a good impression, but my copy apparently ran afoul of the printing press and suffered a paper jam, because several pages in the back matter are badly creased.

Casualty Figures provides a few insights that are omitted from much other writing that touches on shell shock. If you read it, why not share your own impressions in a “letter to the editor,” below?

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