The Magazine

Strange Meeting

When shell shock caused a creative explosion.

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By JEANNETTE BROWN
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During the Great War, an accidental respite from battle enabled two poets to establish a friendship, a literary journal, and some of the era’s finest poetry. 

Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen

Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen

both images: getty images

In the late 19th century, the combination of electricity and water therapy became the formula for good health. Most hydropathic clinics were in rural areas, but the Craiglockhart Hydropathic Hospital in Edinburgh had proximity to civilization; most of its clients were wealthy people who came with servants and, sometimes, their entire families. Between 1916 and 1919, however, the Craiglockhart facility was used as a psychiatric hospital for the treatment of shell-shocked officers. And during 1917, the hospital housed its most famous patients and made its reputation (at least temporarily) as a literary destination. 

On June 26 of that year, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) arrived after spending 12 days under intense bombardment from enemy fire along the Hindenburg Line. One large shell exploded only two yards from his head. Owen was diagnosed with neurasthenia. (Neurasthenia was also known at the time as shell shock; the current equivalent would be post-traumatic stress disorder.)

Unlike other war hospitals, which treated shell shock with electroconvulsive therapy, doctors at Craiglockhart encouraged patients to be active. Dr. William Rivers, for example, believed that reactions to war experience were due not to the experience itself but, in the words of one account, to “the attempt to banish distressing memories from the mind. He encouraged his patients to remember, instead of trying to forget what they had been through.” 

Accordingly, Rivers encouraged Owen to write poetry, and the young man became the editor of the hospital’s magazine, The Hydra. The four months that Owen spent at Craiglockhart were, in fact, to be the most creative of his short life, and his best-known poems, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est,” are from this period. 

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) arrived at Craiglockhart a few weeks after Owen, on July 23. Sassoon was not suffering from shell shock but was being punished for publishing a public declaration against the war: “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority,” he wrote, “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 that this War, on which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a War of aggression and conquest. .  .  . I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. .  .  . On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

Because Sassoon had served honorably on the Western Front and been awarded the Military Cross for rescuing (under heavy fire) a lance-corporal who had been lying wounded close to enemy lines, the authorities could not very well court-martial him. So they sent him to Craiglockhart for a cooling-off period. Sassoon and Rivers became friends and corresponded for the rest of their lives.

Sassoon also became a teacher to Wilfred Owen. They spent the next three months writing poetry, working on The Hydra, and taking walks around the Craiglockhart grounds. Sassoon encouraged Owen’s writing, and the two produced some of the best—some would argue the best—poetry of the Great War. 

In time, both returned to battle. Owen returned to the front in September 1918, was awarded the Military Cross a month later, and was killed on November 4, seven days before the Armistice, by a German machine-gunner. He was 25 years old. Sassoon returned to his regiment, too, and was wounded, but lived for another half-century. 

Jeannette Brown is a writer in Fort Worth. 

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