Lord Moran and ‘The Anatomy of Courage’

E2 of Collected Articles

Lord Moran’s ideas about fear in battle (in The Anatomy of Courage) and how it may be overcome

Fear – this biological key to survival

In his book, ‘The Anatomy of Courage’1, Lord Moran brings his personal experience of the First World War’s battlefields to analysing one of the most profound psychological forces facing the soldier. Fear is an intense emotion most people experience at some time in their lives. Although it might seem a negative feeling, it has a very positive benefit; it can trigger the means to survive a threatening situation – the instinct of self-preservation. Most higher species, including the human species, possess this instinct.

In order to understand the universal nature of fear, it should be put into its biological context. Animal species need to feed to gain the strength to protect their offspring from danger until such a time that the offspring are able to survive alone. Often at danger of being attacked by predators, or rivals of their own species, fear is the defence mechanism that lessens their vulnerability. By either warning them not to enter a potentially threatening situation or helping them to flee the situation (the ‘flight’ response), fear is the key to survival.

The ‘fight or flight’ quandary is well known – and affects to varying degrees all soldiers who face battle. Stephen Crane, in ‘The Red Badge of Courage’2 describes it well. Where their opponents are weak, the fight response is easy, but when they become equal in strength, or stronger, so the flight response begins to overwhelm as the instinct to survive gains supremacy. Against weak foes, the question of why men fight is easy to answer, but not so when men go to battle against powerful enemies. This relationship becomes more complex when the enemies express their power at a distance by using weapons such as bombs, bullets and mustard gas.

The risk to survival created by the anticipation of injury or death at the hands of the enemy or his physical forces triggers the human emotions of apprehension,3 fear and ultimately terror. For the warrior, fear is not ‘cowardice’4, the refusal to enter or remain in a situation where there is a risk of being harmed. Most cultures see cowardice as a weakness, even though it may be psychologically the most rational response to a threatening situation. Yet in most recorded battles, men have been prepared to ‘kill or be killed’ thereby over-riding fear with emotions such as anger, hate, rage and blood-lust. This makes the human species unusual.

Animals will normally retreat once they accept the risk of being attacked has high probability. So young stags in Windsor Great Park in autumn can be observed retreating before the threatening postures of the great stags protecting their harems of hinds.5 And Henry Fleming’s squirrel “…ran with chattering fear…” having recognised danger.6

This suggests that the culture heritage and the training of the human warrior can nullify the biological benefit which fear brings to a threatening situation. Seeking to understand both how and why warriors master their fear has social as well as scientific interest. Hence, the attempt of Lord Moran in his book to build on his observations of soldiers facing danger is a first serious attempt to monitor the impact of this powerful emotion on battles.

Lord Moran’s status as an observer of fear and of courage

Lord Moran gained fame in the Second World War as the personal physician to Winston Churchill. But in the First World War, he served as a medical officer with the First Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (on the Somme this was made part of the 24th Division to stiffen it after its tragic experience at Loos7). For much of the period between the autumn of 1914 and the spring of 1917 he tended the wounds of soldiers in or near the front-line trenches. Thus during those years when the British Armies were gaining experience in tackling the new style of warfare but taking enormous casualties, he was living with the trench fighters. Understanding the workings of the human body, he was able to discern patterns in the behaviour of those around him experiencing the stresses of being under shell-fire, meeting the enemy face-to-face in trench raids, suffering injuries, and dying.

In his book he showed that courage is an emotion which can be rationally studied. He linked its nature to the various behavioural responses he observed among soldiers drawn from many different social backgrounds. His general conclusion was that courage is like financial capital, once spent it is finished. However he recognised that individuals had untapped reserves which prevented their becoming cowards.8 Furthermore they were able to recover through the psychological healing process. Later he was able to check his findings against the behaviour he observed among the Royal Air Force pilots of the Second World War.

The importance of his analysis was in placing the emotion of fear within a scientific framework. Because he was able to acknowledge his own fear (in his Dedication), he brought a sympathetic but objective treatment to the relationship between courage and fear. He recognised that there was a need to apply sophisticated thinking to understanding how stress influences the effectiveness of the performance both of individual soldiers and their units over time. The way the ‘capital’ of courage was spent in the pilots of 1916 is shown diagrammatically below in the form of a life cycle.9

The two components of fear and their effects in battle

Acknowledging the biological value of fear as an aid to survival, Lord Moran’s studies support the view that human fear has two components, psychological – the nature of the stresses within the mind, and physiological – how the mind (and through its neural control, the body) copes with these stresses. Fear is mostly the result of the uncertainties being created by the stimuli reaching the mind from the external environment surrounding the person. These uncertainties represent the difference between what is considered to be a safe environment and how that environment may have changed to threaten his survival.

Gauging what is safe is based on the person’s acquired experience within the physical surroundings where he lived during earlier years. The fear may be of any injury, either leading to the person being wounded (which is three times more common in warfare) or killed. Strangely, according to Lord Moran, the fear is of the process of dying rather than the state of being dead.

In battle external conditions are being experienced which directly threaten survival. These threats may be tangible, such as the enemy charging with a bayonet pointing at the person, or intangible, such as a mine being exploded under the ground on which he is standing. Both forms can have a serious wearing effect upon his psychological state leading to a variety of physiological responses, such as trembling, copious sweating, loose bowels, and stammering.

The conditions surrounding military conflict are normally so unusual and so extreme that their psychological impact is intense. This creates unpredictable responses simply because each person differs and how he reacts cannot be gauged with certainty. Hence a nervous person may show coolness under fire whereas a bully may crack and sink down trying to hide from danger. Because the effect of the impact of the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, adrenaline, on the nervous system is uncertain, the use of trench raiding to test military ardour appears in retrospect a worthwhile policy.

Moran’s four categories of response to fear

Lord Moran suggests the behaviour of most soldiers can be fitted into four categories (although he acknowledges their crudity):

• Those who do not feel fear; he suggests that men educated to have imagination are unlikely to fit this category whereas those not trained to have imagination may fit,

• Those who felt fear but do not show it; such as men of character who have developed the will power to exercise self-control,

• Those who feel it and show it; either by cowering away from the danger or fleeing from it – the basis of cowardice,

• Those who feel it and shirk so as not to face it; the stragglers who find the means to become separated from their companies during the march up to the front line.

In wars before the First World War, Lord Moran suggests that soldiers normally fitted into the first two categories, based on whether or not they had received education. Educated men would strive to stay in the second category. With conscription, men who were not wanting to be thrust into danger often fitted the third category and, where military control was weak, into the fourth. This could apply to those who went into the trenches knowing that to refuse was to be court-martialled and possibly executed. Once there they could adopt behaviour not to be exposed unnecessarily to danger – such as by firing at the enemy. It has been recorded that only 20 per cent of American soldiers were found to have fired at the enemy in Second World War battles although Ashworth challenges its attribution to ‘a fear or horror of committing homicide’ and suggests it was linked to ‘live and let live’.10

Overcoming fear

Lord Moran suggests a variety of methods which can help soldiers either overcome or not be exposed to fear, the latter being crucial to excluding cowards. Examples are:-

1. Selection based on exclusion;
2. Transformation by training and induction to attain esprit de corps;
3. Discipline based on control from within, or self-control;
4. Devotion to the Regiment, a cause or a religious faith;
5. Status accorded by the individual’s community or country;
6. Being appointed a leader thereby being expected to show phlegm.

Examining these in turn, the first used exclusion because no reliable psychological tests of pugnacity, leadership and temperament were then available. In modern professional armies, such tests can help chose those with suitable temperaments to receive military training. In the second example, training in the offensive a outrance to generate elan was the basis of the superb courage shown by the French officers and soldiers in the Battle of the Frontiers – unfortunately a courage wasted by the faulty strategy of Plan XVII.11 The British Guards Regiments are famed for the perfection of their drill, and their courage. The German SS soldiers were indoctrinated to put into practice Adolf Hitler’s views on Aryan supremacy.

For example 3, the earler RFC figure links will-power, discipline – and the application of training – to courage. It shows that sustained levels of stress or emotional shock (“wind” and “commotional shock”, in Moran’s words12) can negate these attributes.

The Regimental histories of the British Army demonstrate that the regiment’s traditions can stimulate conduct in combat based on military performances even centuries earlier. In the fifth example, in militaristic cultures, the profession of the soldier is highly admired. To fail as a soldier is to fail the community. The unwillingness of the Japanese soldier to surrender is legendary; once a captive, he felt he could not return with honour to Japan.

Finally, the role of leadership brings a responsibility to demonstrate the highest standards of performance – as so often shown by young subalterns during the Great Advance of 1918 when youngsters fresh out of school lead their platoons of men through the formidable Hindenburg Line, even though their stamina was not well developed.13 It is traditionally recognised that soldiers will follow leaders who win battles, two famous examples being Alexander the Great and Napoleon.

These examples show that it is generally possible to control the symptoms of fear by the appropriate conditions being created. Nevertheless there were occasions, such as following mustard gas attacks in 1917, when soldiers suffered a permanent loss in confidence. This left many victims fearful of being exposed to more gas, despite such exposure causing relatively few deaths. Lord Moran expressed concern that poorer quality soldiers were using this fear as an acceptable excuse to quit the trenches.14

There is a seventh method which cannot be ignored, the use of coercion. Fear of one’s own side (expressed by military police detailed to shoot those not going ‘over the top’ or by the Prussian grenadiers fearing Frederick the Great’s officers) may take the place of courage. However Lord Moran barely touched on this method because he was concentrating on the behaviour of British soldiers (including sailors and airmen). These soldiers were willing to fight because they shared the belief that they were fighting two ‘just wars’.

Critiques of Lord Moran’s book and its views

The criticism has three dimensions; literary, validity, and ‘socio-political’. Firstly, dealing with the literary, his book can be criticised for being in two sections, although he acknowledges this split. The first section, Parts One and Two, is based mainly on the immediacy of trench warfare as he experienced it and mixes diary entries with philosophical musings about what these recordings meant. Because of the many examples given, the main points he wished to make become diluted. However this dilution is less serious in Part Three which was written for the professional trainer seeking to instil in the civilian soldier the essence of the relationship between discipline and courage (see Figure 2).15 This part has the cohesion lacking in the first two parts.

Undoubtedly the book is not of high literary merit. It does read as a first draft in need of revision. Nevertheless, does it achieve its purpose, to stimulate the reader to think about the relationship between fear and courage? Despite its literary limitations, it does – even 52 years after it was published.

Lord Moran’s conclusions presenting the concept of the spending of capital can be challenged for their validity. Whereas Duff Cooper suggested troops were seasoned in battle,16 he considered they were worn out over a relatively short time. Nevertheless, he recognised that periods of leave and rest can replenish much of the capital within individual soldiers by allowing the stress to drain away.

Although some British bomber crews in the Second World War were able to endure long and often uninterrupted periods of action, others broke down under the stress. Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, the levels of bestiality being practised by both Nazi Germans and Communist Russians created a form of blood-lust which was sustained for nearly 4 years. However, the high casualty rates there may have resulted in injury or death before the capital could be finished. Also the racial hatred between these enemies generated a psychological extreme of behaviour beyond the range that Lord Moran observed and from which he drew his conclusions.

Nevertheless the concept is of value in examining the behaviour of individual soldiers exposed to continuous stress, even though it may not be applicable to armies where group pressure can operate, such as through coercion, to banish fear and hence minimise ‘war weariness’.

The ‘socio-political’ dimension reveals the extent of the cultural changes which have occurred in Britain since 1945. Concepts of honour and service to the nation have been largely submerged by ones based on self-interest. Responsibilities to others have been exchanged for rights which must be satisfied. Thus Lord Moran’s observations on some soldiers using gas attacks as an excuse and on differences between the urban and country dwellers, and their abilities as soldiers, do jar on modern sensibilities. Here he revealed his acceptance of the theory of Social Darwinism to maintain the soundness of the British stock; however this was a view generally held at that time among the upper and middle-classes. Although disparaging the urban dweller for lacking the capacity to fight well, he nevertheless commended the Cockney’s fighting prowess.

His contention that those who did not receive education lacked imagination and therefore were unlikely to feel fear is faulty. There is a difference between experiencing fear and being able to articulate the feeling verbally. As stated already, animals show the symptoms known as fear, but obviously they cannot talk about them. Likewise the peasant soldiers of the Middle Ages probably felt the sensations of fear but may not have had the depth of language to be able to speak about it. As writing was confined almost exclusively to the nobility and the monks, few written records exist of the thinking of peasants on any subjects, let alone that of fear.

If the behaviour of the Russian infantry in the First World War is a measure, the rural soldiers had a stoical acceptance of their fate. Their lives were hard. “Ingrained in them was the lesson inherited from their forefathers, the inexorable lesson of centuries: suffering must be borne; there is no way out.”17 Death would have to be accepted in battle, but it was a sacrifice for the cause of protecting Mother Russia.18 By accepting their fate, stoicism was the most appropriate behaviour This gave them the courage to tolerate pain through the deep belief in eternal salvation given them by their Christian faith. Yet as Solzhenitsyn says of the peasant Arsenii Blagodaryov, “… he knew that fear was inevitable, that everyone was bound to feel it in a situation like this,…”19

Although some of Lord Moran’s views may be dismissed by today’s revisionists and the ‘politically correct’ as being unacceptable, they did reflect attitudes commanding wide respect within British society at his time of observing and writing; 1914 to 1945. Despite psychological research and psychiatry having greatly advanced the scientific understanding of how the human brain functions, it is irrational to reject these early conclusions because his attitudes are of the culture in which he lived. After all, the British people had within a period of just 31 years shown remarkable resilience during 10 years of total war and were now learning of the horrors practised by the German leadership through its armies (the many massacres in the occupied territories, for example, at Oradour-sur-Glane20, and the death camps).

The British people and their political and military leadership saw themselves as twice winning the world’s freedom against German aggression through being at the head of a great Empire to which they had brought civilisation and peaceful development. Lord Moran’s book is of its time, but that Age had beliefs in concepts such as honour, integrity, honesty, commitment, and sacrifice, which many today denigrate or consider obsolete.

Personal conclusions about Lord Moran’s ideas

The criticisms of Lord Moran’s literary style and the general applicability of his conclusions do have some validity. His ideas do show they are in sympathy with the Age and the British culture in which they blossomed. However to condemn these from the perspective of the very different cultural attitudes of 1997 is naive. These differences are so profound that they influence the attitudes of even professional soldiers, such as the one on the voyage to the Falklands who complained that he had not joined up to fight in battle. To suggest that today’s British culture is greatly superior can too easily invite ridicule.

Between 1914 and 1945, two large British armies mainly filled by civilian soldiers faced the military might of the world’s most bellicose nations, Germany and Japan, and learned how to win. The emotion of fear was harnessed so that it became transformed into courage. Drawing upon his unique position and powers of observation, Lord Moran explained the process in ‘The Anatomy of Courage’. His conclusions remain today as foundations upon which others have built deeper psychological understanding of how modern professional soldiers can be trained to perform effectively in war and in peace-keeping.


Since completing this review on 30 November, further thoughts merit further analysis. If fear generates anger and hate, to what extent do these become a spur to kill? Does fear generate two responses, either to freeze or to instinctively kill? And in common with other authors (such as Ernst Junger), is there an alteration in perspective between what is experienced and what is captured in print? Is the brilliance of a writer such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn needed in order to portray the essence of fear – or is real understanding dependent on the depth of imagination of the individual reader?

Bibliography and Notes

1. Lord Moran: The Anatomy of Courage (Chiswick: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1945).
2. Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage (London, William Heinemann, 1925). Joseph Conrad in his Preface to the 1925 edition writes of the book’s sensational impact when first published in 1895. Did it influence Lord Moran to record in his diaries examples of fear and courage?
3. Moran, Anatomy, p. 27
4. Moran, Anatomy, p.19.
5. Behaviour observed by the author on the return walk from Windsor to Cumberland Lodge on Thursday 3 October 1996. Lest it be said that human beings are psychologically uniquely different, much of the modern understanding of the human mind is based on experimental observations made of the behaviour of rats, mice and pigeons amongst other animal species.
6. Crane, The Red Badge, pp. 65-6.
7. Geoffrey Regan: The Guinness Book of Military Blunders (Enfield, Guinness Publishing, 1991), p. 120.
8. Moran, Anatomy, pp. 26.
9. Moran, Anatomy, pp. 38-40.
10. Tony Ashworth: Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System
(London: Macmillan, 1980), pp. 214-7.
11. Barbara W. Tuchman: August 1914 (London, Constable and Co., 1962), p. 280.
12. Moran, Anatomy, pp. 21, 23.
13. Arthur Conan-Doyle: The British Campaign in France and Flanders, July to November 1918, (London, Hodder and Stoughton), p. 273.
14. Moran, Anatomy, pp. 187-8.
15. Moran, Anatomy, p. 179.
16. Moran, Anatomy, p. x.
17. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: August 1914 (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1974), p. 258.
18. Solzhenitsyn, August 1914, p. 256.
19. Solzhenitsyn, August 1914, p. 377. And on p. 404, he powerfully describes the destruction of the Dorogobuzh Regiment at Dereuten, “There they exhausted all their ammunition; there they counter-attacked three times with the bayonet;…” “Three times they stood up and walked into fire with their silent bayonets.”
20. Max Hastings: Das Reich; Resistance and the march of the 2nd SS Panzer
Division through France, June 1944 (London, Michael Joseph, 1981), pp. 181-200.

Original presented to MA War Studies course ‘The First World War’ at KCL, 30
November 1997 with postscript on 4 December 1997.