Blighty Wounds

Faced with the prospect of being killed or permanently disabled, soldiers sometimes hoped that they would receive what was known as a blighty wound, and be sent back home. There were some cases where soldiers shot themselves in an attempt to end their time on the frontline. Self-inflicted wounds (SIW) was a capital offence and if discovered, a man found guilty of this faced execution by firing-squad. A total of 3,894 men in the British Army were convicted of SIW. None of these men were executed but they all served periods in prison.

Guy Chapman wrote about a man in his battalion called Turnbull who had been charged with SIW: "A bullet fired deliberately at the foot was the only way out. Perhaps those who call this man a coward will consider the desperation to which he was driven, to place his rifle against the foot, and drive through the bones and flesh the smashing metal. Let me hope that the court-martial's sentence was light. Not that it matters, for, in truth, the real, the real sentence had been inflicted long ago."

Otto Dix, Trench Suicide (1924)
Otto Dix, Trench Suicide (1924)

Others killed themselves rather than carry on in the trenches. The usual method of suicide was to place the muzzle of their Lee-Enfield rifle against the head and press the trigger with their bare big toe. In some cases, when men could endure no more, stood up on the fire-step and allowed themselves to be shot by an enemy sniper.

George Coppard was shot by mistake by one of his men and was suspected of being guilty of SIW: "Transferred to an ambulance car, I became puzzled to find myself the only casualty in it. Finally I arrived at the 39th Casualty Clearing Station. Next morning I discovered that there was something queer about the place which filled me with misgivings. None of the nursing staff appeared friendly, and the matron looked, and was, a positive battle-axe. I made anxious inquiries, and quickly learned that I was classed as a suspected self-inflicted wound case. Unknown to me, the letters SIW with a query mark added had been written on the label attached to my chest."

Arnold Ridley was bayoneted during an attack on a German trench at Gueudecourt. After spending several months in hospital he was ordered to appear before a TMB (Travelling Medical Board): "I found myself in the presence of an excessively corpulent surgeon general. "Well, what's the matter with you?" he demanded, anxious to get the matter settled with all speed. I held out my shattered left hand which was the most obvious of my injuries. He took it and twisted it in an agonising grip. "How did you get this?" he demanded. "Jack knife?" Probably this was only meant as a heavy joke but I was still suffering from shell shock, blue with cold and in considerable pain. "Yes, sir," I replied. "My battalion is famous for self-inflicted wounds and just to make sure I cracked my skull with a rifle butt as well and ran a bayonet into my groin." The General's normally ruddy countenance changed to a deep shade of purple. He gave my hand a twist in the opposite direction. "Treatment at Command Depot," he barked, so instead of returning to civilian life, I was granted a further experience of military matters at No 2 Command Depot, County Cork."

Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier explained how soldiers found guilty of this offence were treated in his book, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930): Evidently men in other places have taken to blowing off their fingers to escape service in the line, as all self-inflicted accidental wounds of any sort are to be made the subject of legal proceedings against the wounded. Our sergeant-major, an excellent soldier, throws a bit of brass into a brazier. It is a detonator! It explodes and inflicts damage on his hand! He goes to hospital, is tried by court martial and reduced to the rank of sergeant.... War is stern. The innocent as well as the guilty must suffer."

Primary Sources

(1) Guy Chapman, a junior officer in the Royal Fusiliers, recorded how he discovered one of his men had been arrested for a self-inflicted wound.

I glanced down the casualty reports. One name stood out above all others. "Private Turnbull, S.I.W." A bullet fired deliberately at the foot was the only way out. Perhaps those who call this man a coward will consider the desperation to which he was driven, to place his rifle against the foot, and drive through the bones and flesh the smashing metal. Let me hope that the court-martial's sentence was light. Not that it matters, for, in truth, the real, the real sentence had been inflicted long ago.

(2) Charles Young was interviewed about his war experiences in 1984.

No words could really describe the horror of those days - the rats, the filth, the mud, cold and non-stop rain. No sleep. No food for days at a time and being under constant enemy fire from shells, machine-gun and rifle, and gas.

One day I was in the trench and we'd been under-non stop attack for days. Well, two of the blokes with me shot themselves on purpose to try and get sent home and out of the war. One lad put a tin of bully beef on a ledge in the trench, then placed his hand behind it and fired his rifle through the tin, thinking, I suppose, that the tin would take the full force of the bullet and he would only get a flesh wound. But he misjudged the power of a shot at such close range and blew three of his fingers off.

The other one said to me "Chas, I am going home to my wife and kids. I'll be some use to them as a cripple, but none at all dead! I am starving here, and so are they at home, we may as well starve together." With that he fired a shot through his boot. When the medics got his boot off, two of his toes and a lot of his foot had gone. But the injuring oneself to get out of it was quite common.

A sergeant-major came to see what was happening. I told him that a sniper had just caught a couple of our men who had to get on top of the trench for a minute to move a sandbag. He looked at me a bit sideways, but yelled out for stretcher bearers, and they were carried off.

(3) George Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969)

On 17th October, 1916, I was shot through the left foot by a .45 bullet from Snowy's revolver. The bullet tore between two bones in front of the ankle, went through the instep of my boot and buried itself in the ground. With his revolver pointed down, and not realising that it was loaded, Snowy had casually pulled the trigger and wham! I was out of the fighting for six months. There was pandemonium for a few moments as I hobbled about in pain, and then I found myself on the back of a comrade named Grigg, who carried me to a field dressing station close by. Poor Snowy was put under open arrest pending an inquiry.

Transferred to an ambulance car, I became puzzled to find myself the only casualty in it. Finally I arrived at the 39th Casualty Clearing Station. Next morning I discovered that there was something queer about the place which filled me with misgivings. None of the nursing staff appeared friendly, and the matron looked, and was, a positive battle-axe. I made anxious inquiries, and quickly learned that I was classed as a suspected self-inflicted wound case. Unknown to me, the letters SIW with a query mark added had been written on the label attached to my chest.

(4) In his autobiography, Father Figures, Kingsley Martin wrote about how soldiers reacted when they had been wounded.

I recall the wounded as being incredibly patient and unhappy. The one thing they asked, hopefully, prayerfully, was whether they'd caught a 'Blighty' this time. Was their wound bad enough to get them home? Did I think it might get them out of the war altogether? That was perhaps too much to hope for. After all, they were damned lucky to be wounded. Most of their company or battalion would never come home.

A common dodge was to shoot your foot through a sandbag so that the powder did not show. A guard was put to watch anyone who damaged himself. What I recall most from that time is the total loss of belief that the war had any object; it was just an incredible calamity that had to be endured. They were men without faith or hope. They were bitterly critical about people at home. They never grudged your comparatively cushy job. They would give you a dig in the ribs, "Oh, you're a Quaker, are you? Good luck to you. I wish I'd thought of that dodge myself." You'd been smarter than they had. A disconcerting view as long as you remained any kind of idealist.

(5) Naomi Mitchison became a VAD in 1915. She wrote about her experiences in her her autobiography All Change Here (1975)

Probably by the summer of 1915 many of the best sisters and nurses from St Thomas's had been drafted off to base hospitals and ambulances; we VADs were the lowest of the low in the pecking order, and those who had been trodden on were happy to tread on us. We were seldom told what was wrong with the patients and the one and only Sister who did tell us and took some trouble to explain the treatment got increased loyalty and intelligent service. I was somewhat upset at being put into a VD ward and experienced a kind of moralising dislike for the patients, as well as being extra careful over sterilising basins and thermometers.

The other thing which I found upsetting was to see a patient with his eyes closed and throat heavily bandaged, with a policeman in full uniform sitting next to him. The patient was of course a suicide attempt and this was a crime. Was he arrested as soon as he was conscious? I never knew. Both disappeared from the ward. One thing missing was the blood transfusion apparatus which is now so common in an accident ward that one takes it for granted.

(6) Arnold Ridley, The Train and Other Ghosts (1970c)

I returned to my depot for what had been termed final adjustment of discharge. All had seemed set fair when I was ordered to appear before a TMB (Travelling Medical Board) and after being kept stark naked for over an hour in a very well ventilated stone corridor on a bitter January morning I found myself in the presence of an excessively corpulent surgeon general. "Well, what's the matter with you?" he demanded, anxious to get the matter settled with all speed. I held out my shattered left hand which was the most obvious of my injuries. He took it and twisted it in an agonising grip. "How did you get this?" he demanded. "Jack knife?" Probably this was only meant as a heavy joke but I was still suffering from shell shock, blue with cold and in considerable pain. "Yes, sir," I replied. "My battalion is famous for self-inflicted wounds and just to make sure I cracked my skull with a rifle butt as well and ran a bayonet into my groin."

The General's normally ruddy countenance changed to a deep shade of purple. He gave my hand a twist in the opposite direction. "Treatment at Command Depot," he barked, so instead of returning to civilian life, I was granted a further experience of military matters at No 2 Command Depot, County Cork.

(7) Frank Percy Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930)

Evidently men in other places have taken to blowing off their fingers to escape service in the line, as all self-inflicted "accidental" wounds of any sort are to be made the subject of legal proceedings against the wounded. Our sergeant-major, an excellent soldier, throws a bit of brass into a brazier. It is a detonator! It explodes and inflicts damage on his hand! He goes to hospital, is tried by court martial and reduced to the rank of sergeant. Returning at once, I make him acting sergeant-major, which is not the same, though the best I can do, as, although he receives the pay of a sergeant-major, he will lose his rank and pay if wounded. His family will suffer. War is stern. The innocent as well as the guilty must suffer.