Dissertations – Soldiers of the Great War in French mental hospitals

Marie Derrien: “La tête en capilotade”. Soldiers of the Great War in French mental hospitals (1914-1980)

The primary objective of this thesis is to observe the functioning of a society plunged into war and faced with one of its consequences: the internment of soldiers suffering from mental illness. The aim is to show that we can contribute to the global history of the war by analyzing the experiences of a small group of people within a mental asylum, though their experiences may seem isolated and unrepresentative of the majority. Contrary to the implications of the purely medical literature, it was not in fact the psychiatrists alone who had an interest in the situation of these men: investigation of various kinds of archive shows that their families, fellow soldiers, senior officers, the representatives of the armed forces and the government at national, regional and local level, as well as asylum directors and their staff, reacted, intervened and took decisions concerning them.

1608 Clinique des Hommes Carte postale
 Asylum of Bron (Lyon, France), psychiatric clinic for men (Postcard, ca. 1900, Archives from La Ferme du Vinatier)


Between 1914 and 1918, and subsequently until the passing of the last interned ‘poilus’, the case of soldiers victims of mental illness raises issues of psychological, military, political, economic and cultural nature which transcend their individual particularities. Furthermore, these men’s histories and their voices reveal a long-overlooked dimension of the violence of war and the suffering endured by the soldiers both before and after the armistice. By examining the way in which their conditions were regarded, not only by doctors but by society as a whole, we come to ask ourselves to what extent conflict affects the way in which those who were categorized as mentally ill were perceived. Therefore the second objective of this thesis is to reflect on the role of war in transforming social intervention measures, thereby evaluating the effect of the 1914-1918 period on the evolution of psychiatric assistance during the 20th century.

This thesis was defended on 21th November 2015 at the University of Lyon 2 (France).

Marie Derrien is currently an associate member of the Rhône-Alpes Laboratory of Historical Research in Lyon and a teaching assistant at the University of Savoie Mont Blanc (France).


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