Soldiers standing in front of a stone wall. One man breathes into a canvas bag.

Bearing the Brunt of Their Father’s Service: Ex-Soldiers and Child Murder, 1914-1935

In May 2011, British Lance Corporal Liam Culverhouse assaulted his seven-week-old daughter, resulting in severe brain damage and fractures to her skull, limbs, and ribs.1 She never recovered and died 18 months later. Two years before the crime, Culverhouse had been medically discharged from the army with a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after he lost his right eye while on duty in Afghanistan. During his sentencing, the judge expressed sympathy with Culverhouse, stating “it was clear he had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following his ordeal but that did not diminish the fact he had caused the death of his daughter.” He was jailed for just six years.

It is estimated that 10% of British service personnel have been affected by mental illness either while on active service or while transitioning back to civilian life.2 Exposure to army combat has also been identified as a key factor in family violence once veterans have returned home to civilian life.3 Since the early years of the First World War, medical professionals and members of the public have acknowledged the impact of army service on the mental health of soldiers. Despite this, former soldiers and their families continue to be affected by the psychological strain of warfare. The parallels between paternal child killers who saw active service in the First World War and those who fought in twenty-first century wars are striking.

Bottle of Huxley’s ‘Ner-Vigor’, England, a treatment for Neurasthenia 1892-1943. (Science Museum, London/Wellcome Museum)

On Sunday, September 15, 1935, Peter Tennant left his family home in Warwick Square, London, accompanied by his two young daughters. On Tuesday morning, the bodies of his children were found washed ashore the Thames at Battersea Park. Appeals for information regarding the whereabouts of Tennant were put in the national press, but he, too, was soon found drowned. After his disappearance, Tennant’s wife commented to the Daily Mirror that she feared her husband may have taken his life — he had threatened to in the past — but that he would never harm the children.4 The press also reported that Tennant had been severely wounded in the First World War and had been suffering from neurasthenia (a form of mental illness thought to affect the nerves and brought on by lengthy durations at the Front) ever since.

Tennant served in the British military almost twenty years before he murdered his daughters, highlighting the long-lasting impact of his army service on his mental wellbeing. Far from a rarity, Tennant’s murder of his children and his subsequent suicide was just one of numerous cases in which ex-soldiers murdered their children after the First World War. In the immediate postwar aftermath, there were fears that men would return from the war brutalized by their experiences and become criminals. While this fear did not materialize in terms of increased levels of crime, clearly there were a number of ex-soldiers who never shook off the sights and sounds of the First World War. Several historians have shown that these veterans still suffered from war trauma well into the 1930s.5

It was not just ex-soldiers who were affected by their war experiences. Sometimes it was soldiers’ families who paid the ultimate price. The war disrupted family life and put families under immense strain. Wives and children of ex-soldiers also found it difficult to live with their fathers and husbands after their return. The experience of war separated the soldier from his past life and his family and friends who had not shared this experience.6

Article from Irish Independent Saturday, July 20, 1929, p 11. (Irish News Archive)

Getting help from medical and welfare authorities was not always easy. In society more generally there was stigma surrounding mental illness. This was made worse in the context of the military, as soldiers were not meant to break down emotionally. Breakdowns in mental health were not always recognized by the army medical service and medical professionals more generally, especially if they occurred after the war. Many soldiers who were psychologically affected were labeled malingerers, only increasing the stigma attached to their mental illness. Some soldiers were unwilling or unable to receive help or talk about their experiences, so they took their anger and fear out on their family members.

Although the stigma surrounding mental health may have been prevalent in society at large, the press coverage of paternal child killers frequently described the former soldier as a “changed man” since the war. More often than not it was reported that he was suffering from a mental breakdown. In much of the newspaper coverage on ex-soldiers who killed their children, army service was included as a potential mitigating factor in the case, suggesting that this was used as an explanation for the father’s actions. In the eyes of the press, the army service of fathers who killed their children fostered understanding and sympathy. The long-lasting effects of army service in the First World War, and the implications this had for mental health, appeared in press reports of paternal child killers into the 1930s.

Journalists did not excuse ex-soldiers who killed their children, but tried to understand their actions. The press reported that lawyers of ex-soldiers also sometimes referred to army service in an attempt to gain sympathy from the judge and jury. In their descriptions, these men had carried out their patriotic duty and had been harmed by it. Some fathers were simply referred to as  “ex-soldiers,” or it was mentioned that they had “served in the Great War,” but it was more common for newspapers to provide a short account of their experiences, especially if they had been injured, received a medal for their service, or served for a relatively long time.

Newspaper reports of ex-soldier child-murderers highlighted the long-lasting effects of combat, particularly for those who had had a negative war experience. John Breeze, who murdered his three children in 1926, fought in France from 1914 until the end of the war. During his service, he had been very depressed and was hospitalized for six months for shell shock.7 Breeze’s experience of shell shock, along with his later unemployment after the war, may have struck a chord with the public. Despite the fact that he had been hospitalized eight years prior to the crimes, the press portrayed the murder of his family as a tragic culmination of his wartime experiences.

The pervasive effects of the First World War on mental health is also evident in the case of John Jones, who murdered his daughter and attempted to murder his wife in 1929. For his defense, Jones’s lawyer put forward an insanity plea, contending that Jones murdered his daughter while in a “dream state.”8 Although the newspaper coverage of the case did not provide much detail on Jones’s military experience, it seems clear that he saw active service because the paper reported that in his dreams he fought “his battles with the Germans’ over and over again.”9 Jones murdered his family over a decade after the war’s end, showing its lasting relevance as both a cause of mental illness and as a factor in a man’s criminal culpability.

Soldiers exercising at a hospital in Cannes. (Bain News Service/Library of Congress

As cases from both the early twentieth and twenty-first centuries demonstrate, the mental health implications of army service can be long-lasting. Not only were soldiers themselves directly affected by their experiences, but so were their families. It may be more widely accepted and acknowledged today that soldiers are susceptible to mental breakdown due to their experiences in war, but it is clear that little has changed for veterans and their families.

Much like today, emotional restraint and stoicism were desirable traits in soldiers during the First World War. This can have serious repercussions and make the transition to civilian life and talking about mental health difficult. The Ministry of Defense claims that the suicide rate in male soldiers is significantly lower than in the UK general population. This is difficult to quantify, as the UK has has no reliable system in place to track suicides among the nation’s 2.6 million veterans despite evidence that thousands struggle with serious mental health problems, including PTSD. What is clear, however, is that more needs to be done for today’s former soldiers who have been identified as at risk of mental illness and pose a threat to themselves or their families.

Notes

  1. BBC News, “Liam Culverhouse Told Doctors ‘I May Harm My Child,’” (2014), accessed 19 October 2018. Return to text.
  2. E. Hunt et al., “The Mental Health of the UK Armed Forces: Where Facts Meet Fiction,” European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5 (2014), 2. Return to text.
  3. J. Kwan et al., “Post-Deployment Family Violence Among UK Military Personnel,” Psychological Medicine, 48 (2017), 1-11. Return to text.
  4. “Tragic Wife’s Vigil Ends – Husband Found Drowned,” Daily Mirror (20 September 1935), 9. Return to text.
  5. See K. Bogaert, “‘Due to His Abnormal Mental State:’ Exploring Accounts of Suicide Among First World War Veterans Treated at the Ontario Military Hospital at Coburg, 1919-1946,” Social History, 51 (2018), 99-123; M. Robinson, “‘Nobody’s Children?:’ The Ministry of Pensions and the Treatment of Disabled Great War Veterans in the Irish Free State, 1921-1939,” Irish Studies Review, 25 (2017), 316-335; S. Grogan, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Pen and Sword History: Barnsley, 2014); B. Shephard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914-1994 (Jonathan Cape: London, 2000); and J. Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (Reaktion Books Ltd: London, 1996). Return to text.
  6. P. Leese, Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and The British Soldiers of the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2002), 133. Return to text.
  7. “Three Children Shot,” Manchester Guardian (6 January 1926), 10. Return to text.
  8. “Murder in a Dream State,” Daily Mail (18 June 1929), 9. Return to text.
  9. Ibid. Return to text.

About the Author

Share your Thoughts