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Public Humiliation and PTSD in World War I Veterans

Disabled Ex-Soldiers, the Police and the Exeter Magistrates

Coombe Street in the 1920s, courtesy Exeter Memories

The difficulties that First World War ex-servicemen, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), experienced in civilian life have been researched and discussed specifically in the context of their medical treatment. Less has been done to explore their lives in the community. In the Devon in the 1920sproject we intend to examine these life histories in more detail and provide an assessment of the challenges they and their communities faced. In this blog post I consider the case of William West, a former private in the Royal Field Artillery, discharged in 1917 with ‘shell shock’. William had married an Exeter girl in 1916 and lived after the war with his in-laws in Coombe Street, at that time a main thoroughfare between the city centre and the river.

Is he irresponsible? Problem of an Exeter Discharged Soldier. This was the headline used by the Western Times (8 December 1919) in a report on the second appearance of William West at Exeter Police Court. West was charged with being drunk and disorderly. At the first hearing a police constable gave evidence that he had found West in Coombe Street the previous Wednesday. He was very drunk, threshing his arms about, and had attracted a crowd of about seventy people.

When advised to go indoors West refused, and so the constable arrested him. At this point West lay down and began kicking, and it was only with considerable difficulty the policeman and a special constable got him away from Coombe Street. Even with a third police constable on the scene they were forced in the end to call the ambulance to convey him to the police station.

Drunk and disorderly’, together with ‘drunk and incapable’ were probably the charges that Exeter magistrates dealt with most frequently, and under normal circumstances the bench would almost automatically apply a fine of five shillings (25p) or, in the case of a repeat offender seven shillings and sixpence. But West was recognised as a special case. The chair of the Disablement Sub-Committee of the Exeter War Pensions Committee, Harold Rowe, was there in court to explain that West, a regular soldier rather than a war-time conscript, had been discharged from the army in 1917 because he was suffering from shell-shock. One of the side-effects of this, it was said, was that one glass of beer was quite sufficient to make him drunk.

West had already been sent for treatment to a number of the institutions specialising in treatment for shell shock, such as the Maudsley Hospital in South London. On each occasion the treatment had failed. West went out, got drunk, and the hospital refused readmission on account of his subsequent ‘disorderly conduct’. Rowe asked the magistrates to raise West’s problem direct with the Ministry of Pensions to see what more could be done.

Rowe claimed that this was not an ordinary case of drunkenness. West, he said, was in ‘an extremely nervous condition’ and had ‘absolutely no will power’, and when he received his pension he spent most of it on drink, aided and abetted by his friends. The Bench agreed he could not be certified as insane, with the Chairman branding him as ‘irresponsible’, and they therefore remanded him in custody for a week to see what could be done.

Rowe and the Chief Constable succeeded within the week in making an appointment for a further assessment for West at the local Ministry of Pensions hospital, based in the Bishop’s Palace, with the hope of finding him a place for treatment. All those concerned recognised the proceedings as ‘irregular’. However, their actions illustrate how far the public authorities were prepared to go for a disabled veteran.

Sadly, whatever was arranged had no lasting success. West was back before the magistrates on further ‘drunk and disorderly’ charges in 1920 (twice), 1921, 1924, and 1925. The magistrates made no further attempt to intervene directly, although the Chief Constable always reminded them of West’s medical history. They confined themselves to expressing the opinion that it was a great pity that the defendant did not know how to take care of himself or advising that he should abstain from drink.

In 1930 there was a final court appearance and a five shilling fine. ‘It was a pity’ said the chairman of the Bench that ‘he had broken out again’, presumably referring to the length of time that had elapsed since the previous charge. Then things went quiet.

In 1933 West was killed in a road traffic accident, when he and his bike collided with a car. He had by that time moved out with his wife and son to one of Exeter’s new council house estates. He was given a brief obituary in the Devon and Exeter Gazette, which referred to the fact that he had ‘very lately’ secured a job with Messrs Stephens and Son, builders, who ‘held him in high esteem’. It is possible that this was just a pious observation. One of the witnesses at the inquest said he was riding ‘most erratic’, though there was no official reference to drink at the  post-mortem. It would nonetheless probably have occurred to his neighbours that this was the case. After all, as the paper pointed out, though now themselves settled on the new council estate they had all known the Wests and when they lived together in the Coombe Street area, and would have remembered William and his episodes of drunkenness.

West’s case is an example of the very public way in which soldiers who’s post-First World War disabilities could not easily be hidden from view were treated. There were reported to have been seventy people standing round watching his drunken activities in Coombe Street in the 1919 incident. The police court business was open to the public, as well as offering a view to any member of the public who turned up. the local press could be relied upon to report in detail what happened especially if bad behaviour was involved. It was a very public humiliation.

What is more, it was not an isolated example. Exeter’s West Quarter was a poor area where rents were very cheap. West lived with his wife, son and mother-in-law in Coombe Street. Only a few yards away, in one of the courts behind Coombe Street, lived James Thomas. Thomas, described as a ‘very decent man’, experienced the same problem. War-time head injuries meant that ‘the least drop of drink’ affected him badly. In 1925 he was found in Coombe Street with his coat off, challenging people to fight and using ‘obscene language’. In 1928 he was again charged with being drunk and disorderly in Coombe Street and smashing six panes of glass.

West’s is a case where the authorities, whilst willing to help, seemed powerless to do so. He was left to repeat time and again the behaviour which caused him to become a public spectacle. Two cases in the same small area of Exeter. It seems very likely that we shall find more across the county.


Julia Neville, Devon History Society & University of Exeter

Devon in the 1920s Project Manager


[Banner Image: First World War shell-shock patients at Seale Hayne Hospital, courtesy Old Seale-Haynians archive.]













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