WWI: Death removed the burden

By Andrew Stone

Tormented soldiers who shot themselves after the war officially added to casualty list.

The after-effects of battle proved too much for some. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
The after-effects of battle proved too much for some. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

A day before he was to marry, a deeply depressed Arthur Joseph Best decided he could not go on.

The discharged soldier had returned from World World I burdened with after-effects of gunshot wounds to his head and forearm which he received at Gallipoli in August 1915.

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The injured Best spent a year in hospital in Britain before returning to New Zealand in March 1917. His brother Harold remarked that Arthur's "vacancy and despondency" worried him.

"He wanted to be by himself all the time," Harold Best said, adding that Arthur's depression lasted for six months. The strapping returned soldier and former Manawatu rugby rep - he was 1.88m and weighed 95kg - then seemed to rally.

Three years after he resettled, Best, 35, bought a farm at Ashhurst outside Palmerston North and announced plans to marry.

The day before he was to tie the knot he killed himself at Harold's home.

The coroner ruled that Arthur Best's severe depression, caused by his Gallipoli head wounds, was "not unconnected with his sudden rash act".

Wind the clock forward almost a century and the New Zealand Defence Force agrees. John Crawford, the NZDF historian, said there "is now a well-established link between serious head injuries and depression and suicide".

Best, who until last week was not on the World War I roll of honour, is now officially recognised as a casualty of war. His grave in Palmerston North will become a war grave.

The Manawatu farmer is one of two World War I soldiers who took their own lives who were passed over when honour rolls were compiled.

The decision to formally acknowledge the service of Best and Private David Falconer, a young trooper who suffered a serious head wound from shrapnel at the Somme in September 1916, shines a light on the mental health problems which beset soldiers after their war is over.

Research by Otago University public health experts has cited 333 suicides among New Zealand World War I veterans, with higher rates compared to civilian men in the same age group in the 1920s and subsequent decades.

Associate Professor Nick Wilson said research involving World War I veterans was relatively sparse compared with studies of veterans of more recent conflicts. But combat experience was a risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder, which was associated with an increased risk of suicide.

Professor Wilson said veterans whose wounds caused disfigurement, pain or serious disability may have had a higher suicide risk than other returned soldiers.

Falconer was so badly wounded that one side of his face was left paralysed. A medical report compiled in December 1916 said he was suffering from insomnia, had lost 12kg and wasn't eating well. It recommended he be sent home.

The dark-haired farmer arrived in May 1917 and went to the Wairarapa family farm. Two years later, he killed himself.

The coroner found that he was mentally depressed - a verdict which Crawford says constitutes "overwhelming evidence" that Falconer's death was attributable to his war service.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
The Word
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
CASPER Suicide Prevention

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- NZ Herald

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