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Diagnosing the Hidden Disability: Recovering the Subjective Experiences of Impotent Great War Veterans Through the Archives

Research presentation

The First World War: Past, Present, Future, Edinburgh Napier University

In Hidden Anxieties: Male Sexuality, 1900-1950, Lesley Hall declared that ‘to turn the gaze onto the male, when this is not a matter of staring at a clothed and triumphant hero, is a subversive project.’ This paper utilised such a subversive gaze, specifically one trained on men who once wore the uniform and were lauded as national heroes. Although analyses of the long-term effects of the Great War, interwar sexuality, and the instability of masculinity suffuse historical literature, the intersection of all three—the topic of war-related sexual impotence in veterans of the Great War—has not inspired serious scholarship to date.

This paper aimed to instigate investigations of this phenomenon, advancing a series of hypotheses regarding the scale and significance of sexual impotence among British men following overseas combat in the First World War. Using medical records, contemporary correspondences, interwar medical journals, and modern scientific studies, it challenged the prevailing silence on this subject in the historical record—which implies the rarity of war-related sexual impotence—and instead postulated that thousands of British combat veterans returned home sexually impotent. Foucauldian and psychoanalytic frameworks were also employed to evaluate the significance of the condition for affected men and British society more generally, in light of interconnected interwar expectations of masculinity, sexuality, and physical health. The paper concluded by demonstrating how an accurate account of Great War veteran impotence enriches historical narratives of the war and the period.