Monday, July 14, 2014

The Soldier Poets of World War I: Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy

What would cause decorated British officer Siegfried Sassoon (left) to throw his Military Cross for valor into the English Channel and to pen a scathing declaration condemning the leaders who perpetuated the "Great War"? These are some of the questions pioneering psychiatrist William Rivers grapples with as he treats various  soldiers—including poets Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (left/right)—for shell shock at the Craiglockhart war hospital near Edinburgh. All of the above (as well as poet Robert Graves) are real-life characters in Pat Barker’s award-winning Regeneration Trilogy.
Barker was led to the subject of shell shock/"neurasthenia" (a.k.a. post-traumatic stress disorder) by her husband, a neurologist familiar with Rivers.
The doctor encourages Sassoon and Owen to express their roiling emotions—including despair and bitterness—in verse, and the results form much of their poetic legacy. Rivers' approach was surprisingly ahead of its time. He believed that lingering reactions to war experiences were due not to the experience itself but to the attempt to suppress distressing memories from the mind. He encouraged his patients to remember what they had been through, instead of trying to forget.
Wilfred Owen's best-known poems, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est,” were written at Craiglockhart. Owen returned to the front in September 1918 and was awarded the Military Cross a month later. Sadly, he was killed by a German machine-gunner seven days before the Armistice. He was just 25 years old.
Dulce et decorum est
“Sweet and fitting it is, to die for one's country”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!~An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. ~
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, ~
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
"Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen, with suggested revisions by Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon was not suffering from shell shock per se but was being quarantined for publishing "A Soldier's Declaration." Written June 15, 1917 and read before the House of Commons on July 30, it was printed in The London Times on July 31  (the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele). Here is the text:
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe this War, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible for them to be changed without our knowledge, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them. Also I believe that it may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those as home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.
[Portrait of Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge]
Owen, Sassoon, and fellow poet Robert Graves (above left) were members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front, and what they experienced revealed the utter futility and horror of war. All three writers are commemorated, along with 13 other “war poets,” at Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The New York Times observed how well Pat Barker was able to make the personas of these men come alive in her trilogy:
Ms. Barker makes the conversations between her poets and the doctors at the hospital sound absolutely authentic. We are aware that she is inventing dialogue for her characters, but it is informed invention. If this isn't how they actually spoke, then it's surely how they might have: with wit, irony and understated seriousness…. In the course of the novel, it is Dr. Rivers who becomes disillusioned. As a doctor in uniform whose job is to rehabilitate the scarred officers and return them to battle, he too is conflicted by a sense of duty. Can there be compromise between medical conscience and military responsibility? That is one of the underlying ideas in "Regeneration." Ms. Barker takes a bold risk by shifting the point of view to the doctor rather than to the heroic young poets, but it's what makes her novel so unusual. "Regeneration" includes cameo appearances or references to other historical personalities, including H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Ottoline Morrell. Seamlessly, the author works in several poems by Owen and Sassoon as part of the story of their rehabilitation. 
"The General" by Siegfried Sassoon
Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said 
When we met him last week on our way to the line. 
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead, 
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine. 
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Robert Graves gave this copy of his wartime poem "When I’m Killed" to Sassoon.
When I’m killed, don’t think of me
Buried there in Cambrin Wood,
Nor as in Zion think of me
With the Intolerable Good.
And there’s one thing that I know well,
I’m damned if I’ll be damned to Hell!

So when I’m killed, don’t wait for me,
Walking the dim corridor;
In Heaven or Hell, don’t wait for me,
Or you must wait for evermore.
You’ll find me buried, living-dead
In these verses that you’ve read.

So when I’m killed, don’t mourn for me,
Shot, poor lad, so bold and young,
Killed and gone — don’t mourn for me.
On your lips my life is hung:
O friends and lovers, you can save
Your playfellow from the grave.
(The Berg Collection, New York Public Library / The Robert Graves Copyright Trust)


  1. I know this is a bit off topic, but is there a shadow on that portrait or did Sassoon have a very interesting hair style?

  2. Chlorine gas reacts with water, as in the moisture of your eyes and mouth, to form hydrochloric acid. One can only imagine the agony that entails. Mustard gas causes skin blisters and burns the lungs, having the "advantage" of greater staying power than chlorine. Whoever did not die outright bought a period of physical torment before succumbing. Both gases cause blindness.

    Having witnessed such suffering, who could surmount the sheer terror? For terror is the whole point behind such inhumane methods of warfare.

    The surprise is not that the minds of these men were affected. The surprise would be if anyone could survive and not be scarred for life.

    1. I wholly and totally agree. Another horror is the leaders who subject the soldiers to such atrocities while they themselves are protected from it by their positions.

  3. Tremendous JP
    You are the digital doyenne
    The Baron