Nerves and military history

So a couple of weeks ago I failed my driving test. Well, not so much failed, but flunked. Why? Well, I’m pretty sure I can drive well enough to pass, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone for it. To be brutally honest, I bottled it. I’m pretty sure that I failed before I’d even got in the car. It was nerves, no doubt about it. Which is confusing, as I tend to think that I ‘dont do’ nerves. I’ve stood in front of 100 people and talked for 90 minutes for heavens sake! So how come I froze on a driving test, that under normal circumstances, I should have walked?

So what’s this got to do with history, I hear you ask? Good point!

Well, history is full of examples of how nerves can affect the outcome of momentous events. We have this perception that nerves are a bad thing – if you suffer from nerves, then you’re obviously a weak person, surely?

The classic text on military psychology remains Lord Moran’s The Anatomy of Courage. As a Medical Officer in the trenches, Moran got to see at first hand the full range of human behaviour under unbelievably stressful and trying circumstances. His conclusion was that men who broke down were not weak, or lacking in moral fibre, but had simply used up their capital of courage. In many cases a spell out of the line for rest and recuperation did men a world of good, and they often returned good as new. Norman Dxon’s book The psychology of military incompetence expands on the mental aspect of war, as do Angus Calder’s Time to Kill, and The Sharp End by John Ellis.

Before D-Day in 1944, Montgomery asked for some veteran Divisions that had fought in North Africa and Italy to be returned to England. The 7th Armoured Division – the Desert Rats, the 51st Highland Division and the 50th Northumberland Division came back to England. Monty’s idea was that these experiences men would stiffen their inexperienced colleagues. In actual fact, after D-Day many of these veteran units struggled. Why? They were used to fighting in a completely different environment. And they had all expended a lot of bravery in Italy and North Africa. And they had all come home, saw their families, and were then asked to go out to fight again. No wonder they might have felt that they had done their bit. But once they settled down in Normandy and adapted, they ended the war performing finely.

Another story I have often heard relates to parachuting. I have heard i said on more than one occasion that if you are about to jump but are no longer nervous, then its time to stop. If you’re not nervous, then you might be careless, take risks and not heed warning signs. Of course jumping out of a plane is going to be nerve-wracking – it defies gravity and logic!

There are also examples of how nervous people falter at critical moments. Lietenant General ‘Boy’ Browning was described by a contemporary as ‘nervy and highly strung’. How is it then that he came to command such a critical operation as Market Garden? He had a fine record in World War One. But between the wars he seems to have immersed himself in drill and politicking – not untypical for a Guards Officer, and someone who was Adjutant of Sandhurst. Its also not unknown for someone suffering from nerves to find avoidance in something such as military ‘bull’. But Browning’s performance in September 1944 shows all the hallmarks of someone who was not exactly confident.

How do these stories relate to a failed driving test? Well, firstly that theres nothing wrong with being nervous, its a perfectly normal human feeling it happens to everyone, even superhumans. In fact if you’re going in to an imporant meeting, interview or test, and you’re not nervous, you should probably ask yourself why.

So how do you deal with nerves? The first step is accepting that they exist. Ignoring them doesnt make them go away. Secondly, do you try and relax, or psyche yourself up? I guess it depends on exactly what it is you’re nervous about. And different things work for different people. But good preparation should eliminate most of the things that you could be nervous about anyway – then theres only a tiny proportion left to luck.

It might seem slightly fanciful to relate my nightmare of a driving test to military history, but why not? Hopefully I’ve shown just how yo can draw inspiration from virtually any part of history. And for me, that is what history should be about.



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5 responses to “Nerves and military history

  1. Mike Burleson

    I would rather take the driving test than speak before 100 people. There is where I get nervous, before crowds.

  2. James Daly

    Public speaking is one of those things that you get better at with time. At uni I was an average speaker at best, yet I’ve gone on to make more of a career out of speaking than any of my contemporaries that I know of. The best way to get better at it is to get out there and practise and learn. That and a good subject, well researched, and with good slides helps too.

  3. Everything gets easier with practice.

  4. Ian

    James is right with his recipe for getting better at public speaking. If you want to ‘practise and learn’, there is no better way to do this than by joining Toastmasters International or the Association of Speakers Clubs (ASC). I can personally recommend the former. With clubs all over the country, there is no better place than to develop and hone speaking skills. From the complete beginner to the seasoned professional speaker, Toastmasters is a great place to ‘practice and learn’. Although I have no personal experience of ASC, I know that they are also very good.

    Check out the following:

    Thanks for the article James – you make some very good points. I guess it’s time to accept the driving test failure, psyche yourself up and book the next test! Good luck.

    p.s. Do you recommend the book ‘The psychology of military incompetence’?

  5. James Daly

    Hi Ian, its a good read. It is just as much a psychology work as a military history book, just the kind of thing I can imagine the died in the wool senior officers sniff at! Some of the deeper Freudian stuff went over my head a bit, but the broad thrust of it is good food for thought.

    Some good tips about speaking too.

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