Sickness, accidents and other causes of early discharge from Army service

Chapter 9
Please be aware, this chapter contains some material which readers may find upsetting.

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Image: Ambulance, Egypt, 1917. Image from ERYC Archives Service, album of Robert S. Stephenson.


Particularly in wartime, the British Army had a vigorous set of regulations relating to the early discharge of soldiers from their service due to ill health or other physical issues. Post war, there was a process of medical examinations in order to determine whether long term pension payments for service related ailments was applicable. This process was often far from generous and must have often caused real hardship and mental distress to men who had loyally served their country.

In general, the Army was extremely reluctant to let men go entirely during the war, if some use could be made of them. If a man could no longer serve at the front (or was deemed unfit to do so in the first place), then transfer to a Labour Corps (LC) unit was a common option. The LC performed a number of important supply and logistics functions. There were for example various agricultural companies that helped with farming tasks such as bringing in the harvest, as well as railway building / repair units.

In general, it may be presumed that the Army tried to move men out of reserve/training units such as the 2/1st and 3/1st ERY as soon as possible, preferably into a combat theatre. Many of the men left in these units would most likely have been physically unfit, some possibly with long term health issues, others the legal age for active military service or too old for such. A number of the officers of the reserve units were men who had served at the front, been wounded and were evidently unable to return to a combat role. These units did perform valuable functions such as coastal defence of the UK and they freed up fitter and healthier individuals to go to active fronts.

No detailed sickness records have survived for the East Riding Yeomanry. During the war it is likely that daily records would have been compiled at the main camp (for the 1/1st ERY who were in the field) and at the various depots back in the UK (Walton Street barracks in Hull, Fulford barracks etc.) associated with the regiment.

There are a few references in the ERY's war diaries to sickness absence, though these tend to relate to individual officers who had either gone to (or were returning from) hospital. The main exception is a reference in early 1917 to a major outbreak of bilharzia (a severe water borne parasitical infection), which had been discovered in up to 40 ERY soldiers serving in Egypt/Palestine. This included several Sergeants. The majority of them would have been in hospital for a lengthy spell, as treatment of this condition was not straightforward at this period.

The main sources of data on sickness within the ERY are as follows:

  • Service/pension records for individual soldiers often contain details of illnesses and treatments, as well as noting discharge from the Army where a return to duty was not possible. It would have been general practice for the service record to have included the precise Army regulation under which a soldier was discharged sick or unfit. The most common one seen is KR (King's Regulations) paragraph 392 XVI.
  • Silver war badge records note the date a soldier was discharged and the regulation under which he was released from military service.

Occasionally, these sources can be supplemented by diaries, memoirs and oral information from descendants of the soldier concerned.

Given the survival rate of service/pension records (and even those that survive are often incomplete or difficult to read), it is impossible to give a comprehensive picture of sickness and other fitness issues. Many men no doubt experienced short term illnesses and returned fully to duty. Some men may have been discharged and left absolutely no trace of their service if they never went abroad and their service record hasn't survived.

Reasons for discharge range from the potentially life threatening, through serious long term conditions to some less convincing stories. Some statistics and a few individual examples are included below.


It may be noted that individual theatres of war produced their own unique illness patterns due to prevailing climate and other environmental issues. In September 1916 for instance, a large batch of ERY men at Withernsea were transferred to the East Yorkshire Regiment and embarked for the Mediterranean theatre (Salonika).

Overall, at least 83 former ERY men saw service in Salonika, where due to the prevalence of mosquitos in swampy areas, a high proportion (44) are recorded as having contracted malaria. Many would suffer from recurring bouts of this disease for years after the war (and quite probably permanently). At least six service records for Salonika men mention influenza (there were two deaths from flu) and dysentery was clearly another major issue (eight service records mention it). By contrast, there were only two men killed in action, two men wounded in action and one training accident.


Image: 36th Stationary Hospital, Mohammediya, Egypt. Image in ERYC Museums collection.

Various other conditions are mentioned in service records relating to Salonika, including impetigo, scabies, enteritis and rheumatic fever to name but a few. In all, it paints a picture of a theatre where you were much more likely to get seriously ill than you were to get wounded or killed in combat.

Avoiding military service

Of course, not every claim of illness was necessarily genuine. Human nature being what it is, there must have been men tempted to fake illness to avoid being called up in the first place or if already enlisted, men prepared to feign illness in order to be discharged. It is unwise to make too many moral judgement on such cases without the full facts and considering the context of the times.

We don't have much evidence for fake illnesses within the ERY, but there are some possible cases. Private Horace John West (born in London, but living in Hull in 1911) was discharged on 2nd May 1916 owing to oedema (swelling) of the legs. This was supposedly aggravated by exposure and fatigue during military service (West had in fact not left the UK during his service). A medical report of December 1917 noted: 'No incapacity. He is merely a hypochondriac with probably a method in [his] hypochondria i.e. a keen eye for no.1.' Whether the long arm of the British Army caught up with West and conscripted him for further service is not known.

Accidents - various

Lance Corporal Percival John Byass
Lance Corporal Percival John Byass, a farmer from Warter and a pre-war recruit to the ERY, dislocated his shoulder when he fell over a stile in September 1914. This was evidently serious enough to result in his discharge as being permanently medically unfit on 8th April 1916. He does not seem to have been called up again later in the war.
Private Frank William Tilson
Private Frank William Tilson served with the 2/1st ERY, the 2/1st Yorkshire Hussars and the Royal Engineers. For much of April/May 1919 he was in a military hospital at Fermoy, Ireland. Somewhat bizarrely, he had injured himself during a game of leap frog whilst drilling. He was deemed not to be at fault for his injury. In these kinds of situation the Army tended to conduct careful inquiries in case men were deliberately injuring themselves to avoid being sent to a combat zone, or simply because they wanted some time in hospital.
Private Harry Cole
Private Harry Cole enlisted with the 2/1st County of London Yeomanry, before transferring to the 2/1st ERY. He was not actually called up until 7th September 1918, and only saw service in the UK, including Ireland. On 4th February at the Curragh, he lost a middle finger due to a gunshot wound. Even though the war was over, there must have been a suspicion that this was a self-inflicted wound, designed to get him out of the army - loss of grip would have made it difficult to fire or hold a rifle. However, a court of inquiry decided it was an accident.
Private William Robinson
Private William Robinson served with the ERY and later the Imperial Camel Corps in the Middle East. He suffered an apparently accidental bullet wound to the hand on 10th August 1916, but continued in service until July 1919.
Lt. Colonel James Walker
Lt. Colonel James Walker (CBE, DSO, TD, DL). One of the ERY's longest serving officers, joining the regiment in 1903 and he commanded the regiment (when it was an Armoured Car Company) in 1927. He died in a head on car collision on the Great North Road in 1940.

Image: Lance Corporal Percival Byass. Image in ERYC Museums collection.


Image: Travel warrant for Edward Ling, ex ERY. Image in private collection.

Unfit for service

See Rank and File for a discussion of some of the wartime recruitment issues with the ERY. It is clear from a study of the service / pension records that a fair number of recruits should not have been accepted, due to a variety of pre-existing medical conditions. Certainly early in the war, with pressure to acquire as many recruits as possible, recruiting sergeants (and examining doctors) were perhaps not always as scrupulous as they might have been, especially when they were receiving a bonus for signing up recruits.

A sizeable number of pre-war ERY soldiers re-enlisted in 1914, but did not volunteer for overseas service. They thus ended up in the 2/1st (and later the 3/1st) Yeomanry. This did at least ensure a pool of experienced NCO's (and some senior officers) who were available to train new recruits that could be sent out to the 1/1st ERY in the Middle East in due course. But of course, many of these older men were quite unfit for rigorous military service.

A dramatic instance of being unfit for service was Farrier Sergeant John Webb (1866?-1915) who had pre-war service in India. Despite being nearly 50 he signed up with the ERY in mid February 1915. Only a few days later he collapsed and died whilst drilling on the fair ground, not far from the Walton Street barracks in Hull. Cause of death was given as pneumonia, but his end was presumably hastened by the strenuous physical activity.

Summary of reasons

The majority of ERY men who served during the war were discharged in early 1919, with a few being released in 1920. Some men were discharged as time expired during the war as they had reached the end of the period of military service they had agreed when they signed up with the Territorial Force. Discharge dates for many soldiers are given on the medal rolls.

Leaving out the above categories and also setting aside those killed (see Casualties), we are left with men discharged due to wounds, their age (either too old or legally too young to serve), those released for war work, and small numbers convicted in court martials for serious offences. The biggest remaining category was discharge due to sickness / being medically unfit, which included pre-existing medical conditions, as well as those caused by military service. In all to date 287 early discharges due to one of the above causes have been identified. This figure includes 7 officers, 58 NCO's and 222 other ranks. Though not always recorded, the largest number of these discharges (232 individuals) were under King's Regulations (KR) paragraph 392. See below for some discussion of these figures.

It has to be noted that the data is never going to be complete - particularly for men who served pre-war only, as records of their discharge may not survive. Even where the Silver War Badge roll (hereafter SWB) notes a soldier's discharge (and not everyone was eligible for / or claimed a SWB), we may have nothing more than 'sickness' or 'medically unfit' as a cause. The loss of many service / pension records in the Second World War and the deliberate destruction of most WWI hospital records are other limiting factors.

Over age
11 individuals may have been discharged solely or partly due to their age (ill health may also have contributed in some cases). Their ages ranged from 42 to 61. The oldest was Sergeant/Bandmaster Brocklesby, who may well have lied about his age in order to continue in service. The group included several India / Boer war veterans. These were often NCO's and their experience had no doubt still been considered valuable in a home service capacity. Only two of this group saw overseas service during WWI and they were in their early 40's.
Enlisted underage
4 individuals at least tried to sign up before the legal age. Cyril Wain was just 14 when he joined up, whilst the other three (Frederick Keys, Gustave Vinegrad and Frank Woodall) were all 16 years old. Keys claimed to be one month short of 18, whilst the others all said they were 19 or over. Having been found to have been irregularly attested (the official military expression) they were all discharged from the Army. None of them had made it overseas before their deception was detected - Wain later went on to serve with the Merchant Navy.
Criminal convictions
4 individuals were discharged from the ERY on these grounds. Two officers (O.W. Allen and F.E. Audas) were court martialled for drunkenness and dismissed, whilst Private Henry W. Walker was imprisoned for theft and then dismissed from the Army. Private Albert Charles Jeffreys was sentenced in a civilian court to seven years penal servitude having been convicted of rape. See chapter 11 for more information on disciplinary issues within the East Riding Yeomanry.
Providing a false answer on attestation
Although this generally refers to boys attempting to enlist providing a false age, this seems not always to be the case. Arthur Frederick Hogarth (born about 1886) signed up in 1915, when he was 29, but was discharged from service shortly afterwards (see Disciplinary Issues).
Sickness / medically unfit
There are about 154 men listed as sick or unfit on the SWB roll. Of these we have no detail on 45 individuals as to the precise causes of their early release from army service.

Overall, there are 3 officers, 25 NCO's and 126 privates discharged sick or unfit from the ERY. The proportion of officers seems rather low - were officers more inclined to soldier on, or was it simply that the army was more reluctant to release them?

Approximately 56 of this category saw foreign service during WWI, the other 98 never left the UK.
Sickness / Unfit - a detailed breakdown by medical condition
  • Unfit (no details known) - 9
  • Sickness (no details known) - 36

Discharge due to specific conditions:
  • Accidents - 3 (1 dislocated shoulder, 1 elbow fracture, 1 unspecified)
  • Anaemia - 2
  • Appendicitis or similar - 2
  • Bilharzia - 1
  • Bladder issues - 2
  • Cancer / lymphatic conditions - 2
  • Carbuncle (on back) - 1
  • Cardiac conditions (VDH, DAH etc.) - 21
  • Debility - 5
  • Diabetes - 1
  • Dysentery - 1
  • Enteric fever - 1
  • Epilepsy - 5
  • Eyesight - 6
  • Hernia - 1
  • Leg / foot problems (rheumatism, varicose veins, thrombosis) - 9
  • Malaria - 8
  • Meningitis - 2
  • Mental / nervous conditions - 3
  • Nephritis (kidney inflammation) - 2*
  • Osteoarthritis / gout - 1
  • Overweight - 1
  • Psoriasis - 2
  • Respiratory conditions e.g. asthma - 2
  • Spinal curvature - 1
  • Stomach / digestive problems - 6
  • Thyroid problems - 1
  • Tuberculosis - 11
*also suffering from debility

Some of these conditions would self-evidently have made the soldier unsuitable even for home service, let alone service abroad in a combat zone. Very poor eyesight is clearly going to be an issue with firing a rifle accurately, whilst regular epileptic fits, in an era before much treatment was available for the condition would also be a significant issue. The incidence of tuberculosis cases is quite startling. Some of these men died shortly after discharge. In these cases one does wonder how these conditions were not spotted when the individuals concerned were attested. Or perhaps they were and the recruiting Sergeants / doctors were not always too choosy in a wartime situation where every man might count.
Discharged due to wounds
16 individuals. See Casualties and the main Database for more information on the wounded.
Discharged on compassionate grounds
2 individuals:
  • Corporal Shoeing Smith Joseph Mason, the son of a blacksmith from Woodmansey, seems to have been discharged in February 1915 when his father died. Presumably he took up the family business as otherwise the family might have had no alternative means of support.
  • Corporal Robert William Stubbs, from York, who had served with the 3/1st ERY as a motor cycle despatch rider was discharged in April 1916, again on the death of his father. Before the war he had been an iron monger employed by the firm of J.R. Stubbs, so like Mason, he probably took over the family business.
Released to do war work
4 individuals:
  • William Brown Duffill went to work in aviation (engine oils),
  • Joseph Spoors was a coal miner,
  • Joseph E. Stephenson and William Arthur Todd both worked in the munitions industry, the latter for Armstrong, Whitworth & Co.
Miscellaneous other
This category includes one man described as 'surplus to military requirements' (George Richard Tindall) and another (Cecil M. Leonard) as 'irregularly enlisted', which might have been age related or because he was in an apprenticeship. In neither case do we have any more information. Another mysterious case was Herbert Henry Jackson, who was discharged after just 57 days - no cause is given in his record.
97 individuals. As most of these were under KR para 392 XVI, it is likely that sickness or other physical issues were involved in most cases, but we have no specific evidence.

Image: Private John Edgar Huxley. Image courtesy of Hedon Museum & the Estate of Mr W. Palmer.

The mental / psychological legacy of military service

The phenomenon of "shell shock", as psychological trauma was commonly known during the First World War was one that affected tens of thousands of service men. In many cases the mental after effects of terrible front line experiences only became apparent years after the war was over. Indeed, there are many documented cases of First World War veterans continuing to suffer from mental health issues for decades, many never fully recovering from their experiences. These days we would refer to this as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

At the time, the British Army high command was very suspicious of the concept of shell-shock and there was a tendency to assume that those suffering from it were either weak characters or that they were faking their symptoms to avoid being sent back to the trenches. Officer who succumbed to neurasthenia, as it was termed (basically progressive mental exhaustion) were usually looked on more leniently, as it was argued they carried a greater burden of responsibility for leading the men. In Britain, the treatment of mental health conditions was still in its infancy. For soldiers diagnosed with shell-shock or other mental conditions brought on by combat, treatment might consist of little more than rest and time away from the front line. In more difficult cases, hypnotism or psychoanalysis to talk through a patient's experiences were sometimes employed, as were more controversial methods such as electric shock therapy and psychological brow-beating, the latter designed to make the soldier "snap out of it" and agree there was nothing wrong with him.

The East Riding Yeomanry was not of course involved as a unit in any of the "big" battles on the Western Front such as the Somme and Passchendaele, which saw huge numbers of mental health related casualties. It was involved in combat operations in the Middle East for a relatively short time (March-December 1917) and in the form of the 102nd Machine Gun battalion, many ERY men did serve on the Western Front from May-November 1918. There were also many instances during 1916 and 1917 especially, where 2/1st or 3/1sy ERY men were sent to other regiments in France or Salonika. The majority were disembodied from the army within 12 months of the November 1918 armistice.

It would not be unreasonable to expect that the ERY would have had its share of psychological cases, but is there any direct evidence of the mental impact of the war on the men of the ERY? Broadly we may consider three categories of evidence:

Surviving memoirs / diaries of serving ERY soldiers are generally rather light on what is often termed the "horrors of war" – death, wounds and the stress of living in a combat zone. They tend to focus more with the hum drum daily routines of army life. Occasionally more revealing passages occur. Private George Lancaster's diary for example (see elsewhere on this website for transcript) covers the three Gaza battles in 1917. On 17th April he describes himself as being very knocked up, having been at it since last Saturday. Had no more than ½ hours sleep at a time. Fearful bombing attack... In diary entries for the latter part of November 1917, he makes frequent mention of the difficult terrain and the rotten weather, from which a certain amount of mental stress may be deduced.

Leonard May in his memoirs does comment on a peaceful interlude between seeing death and destruction. In a more telling passage, he states that the climate in Egypt, the heat with the sun beating down on you all day got your nerves, although the fighting, the shells, bullets etc. on top nearly finished you off and you came back a bit of a nervous wreck.

These were of course private recollections, not intended for publication and not always shared even with their families. Many soldiers must have suffered much more mental torment, but no doubt in most cases suffered in silence.

Pension/Service records

We can occasionally get glimpses of the mental stresses of army life through surviving service and pension records, particularly medical reports on soldiers. The sample is not very large in the case of the ERY, so we must be careful of drawing too many conclusions. Not being exposed to the constant fear and stress of trench life on the western front, and the regiment's combat experience being fairly brief, it may be that there were few cases of "shell shock" or similar. It is also likely that mental health cases would be played down or under reported by medical officers. The following examples may be mentioned:

Private Edwin George James (born 1897, Doncaster?) was a clerk. He served with the ERY in the Middle East and later with the Machine Gun Corps (Cavalry). He was diagnosed with neurasthenia in 1919.

Lance Corporal Pratt (born 1893, Bedford?) was a carpenter's assistant. After service with the ERY in the Middle East he transferred to the Royal Engineers in July 1918. He too was diagnosed with neurasthenia (in January 1919).

In neither case do we have any further information on the causes or the subsequent progression of these soldiers back to full health.

Corporal Harry Oswald Brewer served with the 2/1st ERY from March 1915 until discharge in 1919. He did not go abroad. After an operation for a hernia in August 1915, he claimed to be suffering from neurasthenia (and from a heart condition). His post war pension claim was rejected, it being stated that his alleged mental condition was neither due to nor aggravated by his service, the implication being he was trying to get out of service early by faking a mental condition and/or trying to claim money for the same.

Another fascinating case, although it is one where the root causes are unknown, is the career of 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Ernest Audas. Born in Hull in 1885, the son of a dental surgeon, Audas is listed in the 1911 census as a disinfectant manufacturer. He was commissioned on 29th August 1914, initially serving with the East Yorkshire Regiment. He was then with the 3/1st ERY from November 1915 to October 1916, before sailing to join the 1/1st ERY in the Middle East (arriving 27/10/1916). There presumably, he took part with the regiment in the 1st and 2nd battles of Gaza. Whether it was due to trauma caused by his war service is unclear, but on 3/7/1917, Audas was convicted of drunkenness whilst on active service by a general court martial and was dismissed from the service. His appeal was rejected and he was sent home to England. However, whatever demons he might have been suffering from, Audas seems to have overcome them to some extent, later serving in the Royal Engineers (as a Private) in France with a Special Company. This unit was responsible for firing gas shells from mortars, so Audas's background in chemical manufacturing may have been relevant. He was killed in action on 9th April 1918 and was posthumously awarded the Victory medal / British war medal.


Image: Major Phillip Cadman. Image in ERYC Museums collection.

Newspaper reports

In some ways the most interesting (and tragic) cases seem to have occurred many years after the war was over. These may be cases of PTSD, although it is also possible that they are not connected with war service at all.

The most tragic case is that of Kenneth Perry / Parry (1894?-1927). Originally from Scotland, but later living in Hull and then Withernsea, Perry served as a Private in the ERY from around late August 1914 and later transferred to the Imperial Camel Corps. Returning home, he apparently settled down to civilian life, with a wife and two young children, whilst working as a clerk in an engineering company. In September 1926, apparently without any warning, he killed his children with a razor and then turned himself in at the police station, covered in blood. The Hull Daily Mail report of 8th September 1926 described him as a devoted father. His service in the ERY was noted, but beyond stating that he had suffered from malaria, no causal link was drawn. In the papers of the East Riding Yeomanry Old Comrades Association (in the East Riding Archives collections) it is interesting to note an appeal to members for information on Perry, so clearly at least some people thought that psychological trauma from his war experiences might have been linked to this domestic tragedy. At any rate, Perry was not executed (as might have been expected), but was confined in Broadmoor criminal lunatic asylum, where he is later stated to have died during an operation. See newspaper reports in the Western Daily Press 4/9/1926, 26/8/1927, the Western Gazette 10/9/1926 and the Aberdeen Journal 27/8/1927 amongst others.

Former Private Jarvis Jackson (born Hull, 1891) coincidentally also died in 1927. He evidently attempted suicide by cutting his throat, whilst staying in a Bridlington hotel and later died in the Lloyd hospital (Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer 22/4/1927, Hull Daily Mail 21/4/1927). It was noted that he had long standing problems with alcohol consumption and his issues may not relate to war service – no service record has survived and since no medal card can be traced, he may not have served overseas.

The evidence is in summary rather scant, but we may deduce there were at least some individuals in the ERY whose war service directly or indirectly affected their mental health.