The Nervous Flyer: Nerves, Flying and the First World War

Lynsey Shaw Cobden


This is not an article about ‘shell-shock’. It explores the military medical response to nervous disorders in the Royal Flying Corps. The First World War exposed the propensity of pilots to the nervous and psychological rigours of aerial warfare, but their unique experiences have been overlooked in favour of ‘trauma’ in infantrymen. This represents a critical lacuna in the historiography of military medicine, for flying personnel were studied apart from ‘shell- shocked’ soldiers. This article will show that flyers were believed to be medically different, and what set them apart from men in the trenches was their unique employment. The war necessitated, and provided the conditions for, the study of the medical problems of flying, including the significant nervous strains. Medical officers quickly established that flying not only affected bodily functions, but also ‘wore down’ the nerves that regulated psychological responses. This article will therefore present the medical view. It will study the research of air-minded medical officers and the conclusions reached on the nervous disorders of flying personnel.

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