Masculinity, trauma and Australian soldiers in the South African War

Effie Karageorgos investigates male psychological trauma in the Boer War as part of our series on mental health. 

On 28 April 1902, Edgar Robert Howell, a 30-year-old banker from Armidale, New South Wales, travelled to Sydney to enlist in the South African War (1899-1902). He was pronounced fit and healthy upon examination and on 22 May sailed for South Africa to fight the Boers with the 5th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse. They arrived in Durban on 18 June and, despite the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May which ended the war, were kept occupied with often trivial tasks in various locations around the British colony of Natal until departing for Australia on 1 July.

Private Howell did not join his comrades on their return journey, however. On 24 June, he was admitted to Natal Government Hospital in Durban with a self-inflicted wound ‘5 inches long, running transversely across the front of the neck’, from which he survived. Howell did not return to Sydney until November 1902, where he spent almost nine months in Gladesville Hospital for the Insane.

Howell’s case – from his suicide attempt on 24 June 1902 until his release from Gladesville in August 1903 – tells the story of a man disturbed by his time in South Africa. However, his experience, like many others who developed psychiatric disorders during or after the conflict, says more about how public perceptions of both ‘insanity’ and gender shaped military attitudes towards these men.

The Australian colonies looked to Britain for guidance on military regulations and, before Federation on 1 January 1901, often indirect administration of their troops. Britain established a hospital for psychological casualties of war in 1869, in the Hampshire town of Netley, which came to house South African War veterans. Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely have recently discovered that pensions were paid to some men on the basis of psychiatric conditions they had developed in South Africa. Australian veterans of the war were not eligible for pensions on these grounds, and specialist military medical hospitals did not exist to house such men. Psychological trauma was rarely linked with military service, and even if it was, specific treatment was rarely made available.

Australian civilian medical authorities in the late nineteenth century saw ‘insanity’ as a sign of moral weakness, in following British cues, which resulted in a feminised view of mental illness. Catharine Coleborne writes that those men who ‘violated the norms of masculinity’ in Australia were more likely to be sent to lunatic asylums. Britain, a warring nation, had created a legend of masculinity that romanticised the soldier hero, making him a figure of ‘idealised masculinity’, according to Graham Dawson. Mental illness among men therefore posed a threat to this legend. Masculinity was also mythologised in the Australian colonies. The importance of nation-building and rural industry had amplified the masculine ideal, creating the ‘bush worker’ hero of the Australian outback.

Australian soldiers who served in the Boer War. Image via the Australian War Memorial.

When Britain called on the colonies for aid in fighting the Boers, widespread drought in the period immediately before the war meant that thousands of unemployed ‘bush workers’, or rural workers, enlisted, comprising the mass of the Australian fighting force. These troops directly represented the ideal Australian male, but this hyper-masculine image precluded the possibility of psychiatric disorder, whether combat-related or not. The Australian concept of selfhood combined with colonial views of ‘insanity’ therefore meant that military authorities questioned the possibility of combat-related psychological trauma. In other words, the concept of the ‘insane’, feminised soldier was inconceivable. This is understandable given that even Australian medical authorities, such as John William Springthorpe – who was to treat shell-shocked soldiers during the First World War – had still not publicly linked war and psychiatry.

Some men did exhibit signs of madness during or after their service, which evidently perplexed military authorities. In Howell’s case, a rare collection of documents is available which describe the struggle by military authorities to find an acceptable cause for his condition.

A Court of Inquiry on Howell’s attempted suicide was held on 21 July 1902 in Maritzburg, Natal during which British doctor John Armstrong of the Royal Army Medical Corps reported that Howell was ‘gloomy and depressed when spoken to, weeps, is self-conscious, and emotional, has no moral courage and is unable to face difficulties’ and confirmed that ‘he made a determined attempt to commit suicide in Durban by cutting his throat’.

After his arrival in Sydney in November, military-medical staff assessed Howell and diagnosed him officially with ‘insanity (melancholia)’, an earlier term for depression, and labelled him suicidal. Significantly, this report specifically attributes his condition to his military service – very rare in the case of Australian psychological casualties of the war – and confirms that it was Howell’s first ‘attack’. Although Howell had not necessarily engaged in direct combat, recent research indicates that this does not exclude the possibility of psychological trauma.

The remaining documents outline the attempt by military authorities to challenge these reports. Included are five letters written by soldiers and officers who attested to Howell’s sanity after having spoken to him during the journey to Australia. However, Howell’s actual condition was made evident by his nine months’ residence in Gladesville. He returned home on 4 August 1903, having ‘improved so much both physically and mentally’, according to asylum staff.

Failing to demonstrate Howell’s sanity, military authorities then sought to distance Howell’s psychiatric condition from his time in South Africa. On 29 August 1903, they ordered military medical staff to again assess Howell’s condition in light of his recovery. He was still diagnosed as ‘insane’, however the report claimed that his madness was preceded, and therefore caused, by measles – a questionable assertion not mentioned in any other medical evaluation – and not his military service. Interestingly also the official record of Australian contingents in the war, published in 1911, which notes when a soldier’s service ended as a result of illness or wounding, does not include any particular details about Howell’s discharge.

Howell’s is one example of mental illness that began during military service in the South African War. His experience, like others who developed psychological trauma during the conflict, was shaped by an inadequate official understanding of military psychiatry. Although the possibility of future financial obligation to Howell would have concerned military authorities, regulations in place explicitly absolved them from any such responsibility towards ‘insane’ soldiers. It is therefore evident that the aggressive mythologising of Australian masculinity, an essential facet of nation-building in the nineteenth century, also had an impact on the way the male soldier, and Howell in particular, was considered. Such views have also affected our understanding of combat-related psychological disorders, as they have resulted in the absence of traumatised men in past histories of the war. This has also meant that the First World War has been viewed as the starting point of military psychiatry in Australia, rather than a profound breakthrough.


Effie Karageorgos is an early career researcher based in Melbourne. Her research is in the social history of war, focusing specifically on military psychiatry and soldiering, particularly during the South African and Vietnam Wars. She has a PhD from Flinders University, and her monograph Australian soldiers in South Africa and Vietnam: Words from the Battlefield, was published in March 2016 by Bloomsbury Academic.

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