The Great War – Occultatio – Mar 09

World War I was an absolutely fascinating period of history, if you don’t mind getting really, really depressed about absolutely everything. The sheer absurdity of the thing was so staggering that an entire generation was fundamentally transformed in just about every way possible by their different reactions to it. What I’d love to see with this thread is a collection of the interesting/absurd/horrible/crazy stories from the war — the little corners of the thing that you don’t usually hear about. There’s a huge number of possibilities, so I’m just going to start with my favorite: the bizarre convergence that was Craiglockhart War Hospital.

Craiglockhart was a psychological hospital for officers of the English army in the Great War, from 1916 to 1919. While nothing in particular *happened* at the hospital, looking at the people who were there and why they were provides a fascinating microcosm of the absurd tragedy of World War I. Much of what I’m going to discuss below is also covered in Pat Barker’s excellent book Regeneration, which was also made into a movie called (in America) “Behind the Lines.” If you’re interested by what I’m talking about here, you owe it to yourself to read/watch those works.

Let us, for now, first briefly visit the front lines.

One of the biggest problems with the actual fighting in the first World War was that technology had grown by leaps and bounds since the previous major European conflict, but battlefield tactics had stagnated. Commanders would send wave after wave of troops after the same objective, since this had worked for them in the past. Now, however, while the troops trudged across and through the mud, they were cut down with machine guns, blown apart with artillery shells, poisoned with gas and a hundred other things. The slaughter was unprecedented in any previous war, and because both sides had more or less the same technology, there was no overall progress in any direction. The front was bolstered on all sides by a never-ending stream of men, sent from the homeland to go and keep the line steady until they died and a new batch was sent in, because if either side *stopped* doing that then the enemy would roll over the border and crush them.

The average lifespan for an officer on the front, towards the end of the war, was three months.

As a result of these conditions, psychological problems became the norm. Shell shock was the most common, in all its various flavors. Shell shock, of course, is related to the syndrome now called post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time it was largely new and not well-understood. Patients had symptoms ranging from general nervousness to nightmares to screaming fits to stutters to near-total autism. Perhaps even more frightening, the doctors and nurses who tended the patients eventually started picking up the symptoms themselves — they called it “secondary shell shock.”

The vast majority of soldiers with mental illnesses, of course, were left where they were in the trenches, but some of them did get sent back home for treatment. Unwell officers were sent back in higher numbers, obviously, and English officers frequently found themselves at Craiglockhart War Hospital, under the care and supervision of Dr. William Rivers.

Dr. Rivers was one of the best psychologists and psychotherapists of his time, and as a result was given the unenviable task of taking these insane officers and curing them so that they could go back to the front lines. Keep in mind that, while PTSD hardly sprung out of the ground full-formed in 1916, never before had so many people been afflicted by it at the same time. The point is that Dr. Rivers had to more or less make things up as he went along — there were no “established” cures for anything. Over the course of his tenure at Craiglockhart, Rivers ended up establishing a good deal of the foundation of all future military psychology.

What makes Rivers particularly interesting in this context is that he fully understood the paradox in what he was doing. He had terrible internal conflicts with deliberately taking men who were quite rightly frightened out of their wits at what they had seen and done, and preparing them to go back and see and do it again. By the end of the war, Rivers himself had developed a serious stammer which never really went away. Throughout, however, he was rare amongst the war psychologists at the time for his genuine care and compassion for his patients. Consider, by way of contrast, the following scene from the film adaptation of Regeneration, which is not in any way an exxageration of events which actually took place:


(Rivers is the one in the green army uniform with the moustache)

Highlighting Dr. Rivers’ moral quandary was one particular patient: Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon, despite his name, was an English war hero. Young, handsome, golden-haired and courageous, he was held up as a shining example to all the troops. On the battlefield, he earned the nickname “Mad Jack” for his reckless actions, like single-handedly storming a German trench and winning. The reason for this, of course, was that Sassoon was suicidal. In a letter to his friend Robert Graves, he said, “I’ve decided I don’t want to die this week, since I’m halfway through Return of the Native and want to know how it ends.” (Note that this is not the exact quote; I’m having trouble finding the precise wording.)

In 1917, however, Sassoon changed tacks. Leveraging his status as a war hero, he wrote A Soldier’s Declaration, a public statement denouncing the war and the leaders of the country. His issue was that, while the Great War had begun as a war of liberation, it had turned into a war of aggression, and was now being “deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” The army, in response, was obliged to court-martial him, a process which would certainly have ended in his execution. Instead, however, they chose to declare him insane, and have Sassoon shipped off to Craiglockhart for treatment. Sassoon didn’t want to go — suicidal already, he presumably saw no issue with dying in a way that would mean something — but Robert Graves eventually persuaded him to give in and save his own life.

A brief side note here: besides being Sassoon’s best friend, Robert Graves was also an officer in the army. Rather than going suicidal, however, his reaction to the horrors he saw was to conclude that the Great War rendered the entire history of Western civilization utterly meaningless. He later went on to be one of the founding thinkers of comparative mythology, particularly with his book The White Goddess, but reportedly never saw it as anything other than just something to do to pay the bills. Oh, also he was horribly sexually traumatized by the British school system, but that’s another story.

Returning now to Sassoon, he let himself be treated by Rivers, and apparently the two men liked each other very much — Sassoon wrote to Graves frequently about his experiences. While at Craiglockhart, he also had a large amount of time to work on his poetry, for which he was slightly well-known. It was in this capacity that he was sought out by Wilfred Owen.

Wilfred Owen, it is generally agreed, would have been one of the literary giants of the twentieth century, had he survived the war. Unfortunately, out of all the people we’ve met, he was the only one who didn’t make it through — even despite Siegfried’s brief return to duty before the end. Owen was a poet, but not a very good one. His response to the horrors of the front had been to try and write uplifting, pastoral pieces, but Sassoon suggested that he try the other tack. The result was a very rapid change in the confidence and power of Owen’s writing, and some of the most intense, moving and memorable war poetry of all time.

Take, for instance, his most famous work, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” One of the phrases frequently heard around Europe during the war was a quote from Horace: “dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori” — “It is sweet and noble to die for one’s country.” Owen’s poem offered a… different perspective:

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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,
Obscene as cancer, 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.

Adding absurdity onto absurdity, the Craiglockhart War Hospital actually had, for a time, its own literary journal, called the Hydra. The journal contained pieces from Owen, Sassoon and other patients, and Owen edited it for a time. A startling number of people who would later become authors and poets were all concentrated in the hospital at that time.

The final absurdity — and where I’ll stop for now — was the timing of Owen’s death. The final armistice was signed on the 3rd of November, 1919, following which the powers spent a week deciding where to officially sign the ceasefire. During that time, Owen was shot at the Battle of the Sambre. The story is that news of his death reached his hometown as the bells were ringing to announce the peace.


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