Nafsika Thalassis | “Useless Soldiers: The Dilemma of Discharging Mentally Unfit Soldiers during the Second World War” | 2010

Intelligence test world war 1

Intelligence test administered to soldiers during WW1.

Summary. During the Second World War, an unprecedented concern with the mental fitness of troops led to new selection procedures designed to ensure that soldiers possessed a certain level of intelligence and emotional stability. Using a variety of sources, including case notes from contemporary psychiatrists, this article explores two categories of soldiers who were up for discharge: those with “low intelligence” and those with “inadequate personalities.” It suggests that many psychiatrists and combatant officers did not believe it was wise to retain the maximum number of soldiers in duty because many men were thought to be inherently incapable of becoming efficient soldiers.

Mass military deployment during 20th century brought w/it conclusion that some men were unsuitable for military service. Boer War, WW1 = men with deficient height, puny physique. After WW1, it was mental qualities that fell under particular scrutiny.

This article examines two categories of men who were discharged during the Second World War for psychological inadequacies. 1) those w/”low intelligence” 2) those w/”inadequate personalities.” People were discharged for other reasons, too. The purpose of this article is to examine these 2 categories of men, whose values as soldiers, for the first time, became questioned for the first time during WW2.

Many psychiatrists did not aim to return all their patients to duty because they believed that many of them were inherently useless soldiers and the army was better off without them. These psychiatrists believed they had support of commanding officers.

The aim of this article is to analyse the psychiatrists’ perceptions of patients and the considerations that went into deciding whether a soldier was worth retaining in some capacity. 

Discharging Mentally Unfit Soldiers

1914, psychiatrists recommendations put into practice, based on IQ tests. Easy to administer, already used by American and German armies.

Eugenic campaigns focused on intelligence as main threat to the quality of the race.

41% medical discharges were due to psychiatric illness.

Some argued against the dismissal of “dullards” as an “unjustice” to those who served. Major P.J.R. Davis: “Why should I send these men to you so that they will survive the war and go home and breed like rabbits, whilst all my finest men are going to risk being killed?”

One prominent psychiatrist recommended, “the vast majority of these cases are most unstable ‘misfits’ who should be eliminated” because “they cause difficulties and even disasters out of all proportion to their numbers” and their “presence constitutes a continued if only a potential menace to the morale of the group as a whole.”

Low Intelligence and Soldiering

The century preceding WW1 saw concept of intelligence change from a capacity for understanding, w/o gradation, found in every normal adult, to a biological and heritable concept which defined differences between groups such as the difference between species on the evolutionary scale and in differences between races. [For comprehensive history of intelligence, see Carson 2006.]

By WW2, studies correlated low intelligence w/every ill: discipline problems, mental breakdown, skin and venereal disease. Ex, commanding officer sent 27 men out of a draft of 80 to a medical officer because he regarded them as “unfit to carry out the specialized duties required in this unit.” At a psychiatric center, “as a result of a careful and detailed investigation of each case, combined with intelligence tests, seven were found to be higher-grade feeble-mided defectives; eleven were mentally dull and backward, and a further 6 were of subnormal intelligence, and unfitted for any form of specialised training.”

Inadequate Soldiers

Men thought to have inadequate personalities were also discharged. They were “selfish,” “wet fish,” or “men of poor moral fibre,” cowards committed to avoiding gunfire, discharging their weapons, but appearing to look busy.

Another manifestation of inadequate personality: homosexual feelings. 1943, Brigadier G.W.B. James, 1943 conference paper: “ruthless selection” was best way of reducing psychiatric casualties.


The men who were discharged were often looked down upon by psychiatrists because they were regarded as useless soldiers and failed men.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s