General Lord Dannatt, 68, said that the number of people taking their own lives in Britain was a “tragedy” as he drew attention to the mental health crisis among former personnel.

Military charities estimate that 519 veterans in the UK have died by their own hand since the start of last year. There are no official statistics.

The former army chief expressed dismay at the lack of data available and shock that coroners had only recently decided to record and examine suicides of ex-military personnel.

“The coroners’ service ought to record people with a service background who have taken their own lives,” he said. “I find it quite extraordinary that that has not been the case until now.”

Speaking at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth, he said that the government should have done more in the past to tackle the suicide crisis among veterans, and that larger charities should also have “woken up earlier” to the problem.

He said that civilians were increasingly committing suicide and he was critical of social media for heaping more pressure on people.

Last year 6,859 people killed themselves in the UK and Ireland, according to the Samaritans, with the UK recording a 10.9 per cent rise in the suicide rate, year on year.

Lord Dannatt said: “This is an epidemic. It’s a symptom of our time and the downside of social media, which can bring a lot of unwanted additional pressure on people.

“I think 21st century living has accentuated a lot of problems for some people. The tragedy is that taking your own life is a permanent solution to what should be a temporary problem.”

Lord Dannatt, who served as chief of the general staff from 2006 to 2009, played a pivotal role in setting up Help For Heroes, the charity that supports wounded British servicemen and women.

His calls come after a coroner called on the defence secretary to improve mental health care for British troops earlier this year.

James Healy-Pratt, assistant coroner for West Sussex made the intervention in April after an inquest was told that Danny Johnston, 35, a corporal in the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, took his own life after becoming traumatised by a tour of Afghanistan and having trouble sleeping.

The special forces soldier was described as a tortured soul who had been destroyed by his 14-year army career, during which he served in the Middle East, Kosovo and Northern Ireland.

Mr Healy-Pratt called on the secretary of state to oversee an increase in support for veterans of the forces.

“Our service personnel need to be looked after and protected to a greater extent than they are,” he said. “In many ways Danny’s tragic situation is an example of that. It’s the duty of this court to protect future people from that similar outcome.”

Johnny Mercer, the veterans minister, has also spoken out about the crisis, and conceded that there appeared to be a “spike” in former personnel taking their own lives.

However, he stressed that any narrative that soldiers were “broken, mad and dangerous” was wrong.

He told The Times in the summer: “We have to be careful around the narrative . . . The facts are, you are less likely to take your own life if you have served. The suicide rate in the military is less than half of the equivalent cohort outside of the military.” (Source: The Times)