Wilfred Owen: Short, shy and self-effacing.
by Colin Waters

Strange Meeting

March 3, 2017 | by Colin Waters

In most histories of the First World War Edinburgh rarely rates a mention. Nor is this surprising.  A local lad, Douglas Haig, may have commanded the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, but the city of his birth was a bit player in the drama that unfolded in continental Europe.

However, the War Collection at Napier University’s Craiglockhart Campus presents a case for Edinburgh’s importance in this period, not as a zone of conflict but as a centre of literary and medical innovation. Here, protected under glass, are memorabilia typical of the time: fragments of shells, medals, and sepia snaps of unsmiling men in khaki. But interesting as they are, they take second place to the rare editions of poetry books and a handwritten register of patients’ names, which evoke events a century earlier that continue to influence the way we think about war and its effect on those who wage it, on mental health and even our notion of masculinity.

In 1917, Craiglockhart was a military hospital, not treating physical wounds but ‘neurasthenic’, or shell-shocked, officers. The work undertaken here between 1916 and 1919 by doctors such as W.H.R. Rivers and Arthur Brock was pioneering and would help overturn the idea that shell-shocked men were cowards. It was in this capacity that it provided the venue for the encounter that secured its place in literary history. In August 1917 the war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met inside its walls.
Neither men’s first impressions of the place were favourable. The building opened in 1880 as Craiglockhart Hydropathic, a spa where wealthy Victorians could undergo a modish ‘water cure’. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the hydro had fallen into disuse. In 1916, the War Office requisitioned the building, transforming it into a hospital. Although it is described as ‘a giant Italianate villa’, Owen and Sassoon saw it more in terms of a gothic pile. On his arrival in June 1917, Owen wrote home that he was staying in ‘a decayed Hydro, far too full of officers, some of whom I know’. As Sassoon wrote in his memoirs, ‘It was a gloomy cavernous place even on a fine July afternoon.’

Something of that sombre atmosphere survives. The War Collection is shadowed, its blinds half-drawn. A sign on the wall informs visitors that of the 1801 officers treated at Craiglockhart, 735 were discharged as medically unfit, 167 were passed for light duties, 141 required social medical treatment at other hospitals, and 758 were returned to active service. Owen was judged fit by a Medical Board and returned to the Western Front, where he died one year after leaving Edinburgh. It was in the final twelve months of his life that he wrote the poems for which he is remembered today, but he never would have written them if he hadn’t spent the summer and autumn of 1917 in Scotland.

* * *

Wilfred Owen was born at Oswestry, Shropshire, on 18 March 1893, the eldest of four children raised by Tom and Susan Owen. Owen’s closest friend was his mother, with whom he shared a devotion to religion (Church of England) and poetry. His relationship with Tom, a railway clerk, was more distant. Wilfred’s early years were marked by his parents’ struggle to remain in the ranks of the middle class. While Susan’s family had had money in their past, when her father died in 1897, he left his daughter less than had been hoped for. Wilfred wanted to go to public school and then Oxford, but had to settle for the Technical School in Shrewsbury. In the summer of 1911, he worked as an unpaid assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden, near Reading, in return for tuition. But he began to drift from his faith, and a year later quit after telling the divine he thought religion was at odds with science and poetry. Suffering a collapse, he went home to be looked after by his mother. In the summer, he took and failed a scholarship exam. By the autumn of 1913, he was teaching English at a language school in Bordeaux.

When the war began in August 1914, Owen was still in France. Photographs from the period show him moustached, bow-tied and dandyish. At first, he made no attempt to join up. By the following autumn, sensing he could no longer stay out of the conflict, he returned to Britain, and on 21 October, 1915, travelled to London to join the Artists’ Rifles; he was surprised to learn there were no actual artists in the unit. Owen was short (under five foot six), shy and self-effacing; not your typical ‘happy warrior’. His accent, as Sassoon – a quintessential Edwardian gentleman – later noted, was a regional one.

Owen spent the following year training. On 4 June, 1916, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 5th Battalion in the Manchester Regiment. Near the end of 1916, he was finally sent to France, and at the beginning of 1917 he joined the 2nd Manchesters near Beaumont Hamel on the Somme. Here, he assumed control of a platoon. His men thought him an excellent officer. Soon after arrival, his platoon was gassed. In April, after leading his men through an artillery barrage, he was thrown into the air by a shell that exploded near him. In the aftermath, he lay beside the scattered body parts of a fellow officer. Returning to base, he was trembling, confused and stammering. It is possible his commanding officer called him a coward. He was diagnosed with ‘neurasthenia’ and taken to a hospital in Normandy, where the decision was made to send him to Scotland.

* * *

Nineteen seventeen was a year of opportunities and setbacks for the Allies. America’s entry into the war in April was balanced by Russia crashing out after its October revolution. At the start of June, the French army was afflicted by mutinies following the disastrous Second Battle of the Aisne. In July, T.E. Lawrence took Aqaba from the Ottoman Empire with a force comprising Arabian troops. During Owen’s time at Craiglockhart, Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, was launched. Starting on July 31, the battle lasted three and a half months, during which time 370,000 men were wounded or killed; many drowned in the mud.

Edinburgh felt very distant from what was unfolding elsewhere. Owen travelled by sleeper on the morning of 26 June. Arriving at Waverley, he breakfasted at the North British Hotel then walked the length of Princes Street, admiring the Castle, which ‘looked more than ever a Hallucination, with the morning sun behind it’. He reached Craiglockhart in what the poet and future friend Robert Graves called ‘a very shaky condition’. He suffered nightmares about the Front, in which respect he was an unexceptional lodger.

Craiglockhart could house up to 174 patients, all of whom were officers said to be shell-shocked, which is defined as ‘psychological disturbance caused by prolonged exposure to active warfare, especially being under bombardment’. By the end of World War One, 80,000 British soldiers were treated for this condition, although it is thought this number is a gross underestimate. Symptoms included nervous tics, paralysis, blindness, disorientation, hysteria, withdrawal, nightmares, insomnia, loss of appetite, anxiety, tremors and nervous collapse. The first soldiers presenting symptoms appeared as early as September 1914. The earliest published reference to shell shock appears in The Lancet in 1915. As a new condition wrought by the heavy weaponry that dominated the war, effective treatment faced two hurdles. Firstly, medical professionals had no experience to refer to. Secondly, sections of the military, public and the medical establishment didn’t believe shell shock was a real phenomenon. Or as Sassoon put it: ‘Damage inflicted on the mind did not count as illness.’


Napier University’s Craiglockhart Campus: In 1917 it was a military hospital treating ‘neurasthenic’, or shell-shocked officers.

On his first morning at Craiglockhart, Owen was introduced to his doctor, Arthur Brock, whom he described as ‘a lean earnest man with deep-set eyes and a nose like an axe blade’. Over Brock’s desk there was an image of Antaeus, a figure from Greek mythology who drew his strength from the earth, struggling with Hercules, who defeated Antaeus by lifting him in the air, severing him from the source of his strength. Brock believed this image encapsulated shell-shock: the soldier who lost touch with what grounded him before the war faced destruction unless he reconnected with who he was. Brock argued that patients had to heal themselves by their own efforts. He encouraged the men to pursue interests through which they could express themselves. At Craiglockhart, there was a wide selection of activities on offer: golf, badminton, tennis, swimming; a debating society, language lessons, amateur dramatics, music.

Brock also argued that victims of ‘neurasthenia’ had to confront their dreams and what they represented. In that, he agreed with his colleague, W.H.R. Rivers, who treated Sassoon. The founder of the British Journal of Psychology, Rivers argued the men’s trauma arose from a conflict between fear and duty. He had read Freud, and while he didn’t believe that a sexual response was at the root of every neurosis, he developed Freud’s theories about repression. He upturned the general notion that men shouldn’t talk about the horrors they’d witnessed. Instead, Rivers insisted they do just that. His ‘talking cure’ – what he termed ‘autognosis’ – was slow and labour intensive, but in time his pioneering work overcame a great deal of the suspicion in the military that the officers at Craiglockhart were shirkers.

Owen and Brock became friends, to the extent he showed his doctor his poems. Even Owen’s most passionate admirers must concede the poems he wrote before meeting Sassoon are almost unreadable:

I only pause from reading
To scribble these few lines; or scarcely heeding
The dismal damp abroad, to mock the rain
Shooting its sleety balls at me in vain.
– Ho, thus methinks, hereafter, when the weak
Creations of a Mental Mist shall seek
To quench my soul, I’ll thwart them by the shield
Of crystal Hope!

Building on his experience of teaching in Bordeaux, he took up a part-time post at Tynecastle School in August, where he was popular with his class. He also worked on Craiglockhart’s magazine, The Hydra, a mix of poems and up-beat articles about whatever took the contributors’ fancy. The poems are not distinguished, but they give a sense of the sentiments of what was then considered war poetry. For example, the Kiplingesque ‘When’: ‘…while your wounds are dressed, and your soul finds rest, / And troubles pass you by; / Then glance no more on the strife beneath, / Tis time for you to die.’

At the back of each fortnightly issue were listed the officers who had left Craiglockhart and those who had arrived. In The Hydra’s eighth issue, dated August 4, under Arrivals, Owen would have found a name that leapt out, no matter that it was misspelt as ‘Seigfried Sassoon’.

* * *

In a letter to his mother dated 15 August, Owen wrote: ‘I have been reading Siegfried Sassoon, and am feeling at a very high pitch of emotion. Nothing like his trench life sketches has ever been written or ever will be written. Shakespeare reads vapid after these.’ Sassoon came to Craiglockhart under a shadow. On 6 July, he had written to the CO of the 3rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, with whom he served, to inform him he would ‘refuse to perform any further military duties’; he intended not to return from a period of convalescent leave. Encouraged by pacifist friends Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, Sassoon wrote ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration’ and sent it to the press. ‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority,’ he wrote. ‘I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’


Siegfried Sassoon: His bravery bordered on the reckless.

Robert Graves was appalled at the risk Sassoon was taking. A court martial was a real possibility. Graves arranged for his friend to go before a Medical Board on 20 July in Liverpool, and submit to being sent to Craiglockhart as a way of defusing his declaration. Sassoon, however, was not mad, nor suffering from shell shock. Arriving on 23 July, he was a reluctant patient. He branded Craiglockhart ‘Dottyville’ and in a letter to Graves dated October 4, wrote of ‘this place of wash-outs and shattered heroes’.

Born in 1886, Sassoon spent his pre-war life hunting and playing cricket in Kent and Sussex. His family’s wealth meant he had no need to work. He also wrote poetry; like Owen, his pre-war poetry is not good. He was said to be snobbish, arrogant, but also generous and shy. He had enlisted on 5 August, 1914, the day after Britain entered the war and was commissioned in May 1915. His bravery bordered on the reckless; Graves called it suicidal. It won him a Military Cross but also earned him the nickname ‘Mad Jack’.

The death of his brother Hamo in 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign is said to explain the savage turn Sassoon’s work took in 1916. His poems grew cynical, disillusioned, animated not by a hatred of Germans but that of the British public  whose complacency ensured the war continued. ‘Blighters’ imagines a theatre where the poet would like to see ‘a tank come down the stalls’ to kill a pro-war audience and performers. ‘Fight to the Finish’ pictures a victory parade where returning soldiers turn on a crowd of civilians:

Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob,
Grim Fusiliers broke rank with a glint of steel,
At last the boys had found a cushy job.

* * *

The date on which Owen and Sassoon met is uncertain. Some say 16 August; others, 17 or 18. We have a better idea of how the meeting went. Sassoon was sitting on his bed, wearing his dressing gown, cleaning golf clubs, when Owen came to his room. The contrast between them would have been immediately obvious. Sassoon was taller, older, athletic and upper class. Where Owen failed to get a scholarship to Reading, Sassoon was educated at Marlborough and Cambridge. Owen may have felt he was suspected of cowardice; Sassoon was decorated. Owen was unpublished; Sassoon corresponded with H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. Their backgrounds weren’t such one would readily expect the two to become friends.

Owen arrived with a pile of copies of Sassoon’s recently published The Old Huntsman, which he wanted signed to send to friends and relatives. He was immediately deferential to Sassoon, who remembered, ‘He stood at my elbow, rather as though conferring with a superior officer.’ As he left the room, he mentioned that he wrote poetry too. Generously, Sassoon told Owen to show him what he’d written. ‘It amused me to remember that I wondered whether the poems were any good,’ Sassoon recalled.

If the date of the first meeting is unclear, biographers agree the men met again on 21 August. Sassoon was unimpressed by the poems Owen arrived with. Owen struck Sassoon as ‘a rather ordinary young man, perceptibly provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry’. For his part, Owen wrote in a letter to his cousin, Leslie Gunston, on 22 August, that Sassoon was ‘very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d (how’s that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom.’

In the same letter, Owen mentions he had written a poem ‘in Sassoon’s style’. ‘The Dead-Beat’ inaugurated Owen’s annus mirabilis:

He dropped, – more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
– Just blinked at my revolver blearily;
– Didn’t appear to know a war was on,
Or see the blasted trench which he stared at.

The brutal, demotic conclusion to the poem may have been pure Sassoon – ‘Next day I heard the Doc’s well-whiskied laugh: / “That scum you sent me down last night soon died. Hooray!”’ – yet the poem still represented a great advance on his Keatsian reveries. Owen wrote that Sassoon ‘was struck with ‘The Dead-Beat’, but pointed out that the facetious bit was out of keeping with the first and last stanzas. Thus the piece as a whole is no good.’ If Sassoon was tough on Owen we can presume it was because he now saw promise; ‘The Dead Beat’ demanded a serious response. As Owen brought him more work, Sassoon grew more interested, advising the younger man, ‘Sweat your guts out writing poetry.’

Through their friendship, Owen secured for The Hydra new poems by Sassoon, starting with ‘Dreamers’, possibly the first poem he wrote at Craiglockhart: ‘Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin / They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.’ In contrast, the dreams of men at Craiglockhart were nightmares of the Front; the nights were rent by screams.

Two of the poems that were, eventually, to shape the public’s view of World War One, and war in general, were first written at Craiglockhart. Towards the end of September, Owen showed Sassoon a new poem, who suggested its title, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.

What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns,
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

It was Owen’s first major poem, successfully integrating a Keatsian sensibility and language with what he had witnessed at the front. Whereas in his early verse he was content to luxuriate in Keats’s lush language, Owen now drew on Keats to register a sense of harmony violated. He takes a line from ‘To Autumn’ – ‘Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn’ – and transforms it: ‘nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, – / The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.’

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, Owen’s most famous poem, was drafted at Craiglockhart at the start of October. His experience of surviving a gas attack and his nightmares of war are evident:

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.

The influence of Brock and Rivers, their insistence that the men had to confront the images that haunted them works its way into ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. That Owen was suffering ‘smothering dreams’ where he relived horrific events is starkly registered:

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

The poet puts it to ‘My friend’ that if he or she experienced dreams like these, they could not defend sending men to their deaths ‘with such high zest’. Of course, with this poem, Owen did just that: he forced everyone who read it to dream his hellish dream, and in dreaming it, to wake up. And then in refuting the credo, ‘Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori’, he gave anti-war campaigners of future generations the riposte to jingoism and war fever: ‘The old Lie’.

Soon, Owen and Sassoon were friends, although the bond appears to have meant a great deal more to the former. In a letter to his mother, dated 12 September, he writes that Sassoon ‘is intensely sympathetic with me about every vital question on the planet or off it…. There is no denying to myself that he is already a closer friend than, say, Leslie…’ It is a remarkable statement considering he had known his cousin Leslie Gunston his entire life.

They shared new work, but Sassoon was hard to impress. He wrote to Graves on October 19, ‘His work is very unequal’. Owen on the other hand was moved by what Sassoon was writing in Craiglockhart, poems such as ‘Does it Matter?’ and ‘Banishment’. In time, Sassoon would admit Owen had influenced his work too. ‘To remind people of [war’s] realities was still my main purpose, but I now preferred to depict it impersonally, and to be as much ‘above the battle’ as I could. Unconsciously, I was getting nearer to Owen’s method of approach.’

Sassoon did not mean he was removing himself or emotion from his poetry, but tempering the rage and brutal satire that drove his pre-Craiglockhart poems. Owen’s influence is apparent in ‘Banishment’, which he wrote near the end of his time in Edinburgh. In a more lyrical and tender mood, Sassoon wrote about being separated from the men who had been under his command. Anger is no longer the dominant mood; instead, it is comradeship:

I am banished from the patient men who fight.
They smote my heart to pity, built my pride.
Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side,
They trudged away from life’s broad wealds of light.
Their wrongs were mine; and ever in my sight
They went arrayed in honour. But they died, –
Not one by one; and mutinous I cried
To those who sent them into the night.

His use of pity, the word perhaps most associated with Owen, is telling. (‘My subject is War, and the pity of War,’ Owen wrote. ‘The Poetry is in the pity.’)

At the end of October, Owen appeared before the Medical Board, where he was cleared to return to active duty; he was given three weeks’ leave before rejoining his unit, and wrote to his mother that he was ‘rather upset about it’ because he was ‘so happy with Sassoon’. Some have detected in Owen’s letters hints that he was in love with Sassoon. ‘I held you as Keats and Christ and Elijah and my Colonel and my father-confessor and Amenophis IV in profile,’ he wrote to him after leaving Craiglockhart. ‘I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.’

Sassoon was homosexual, although it’s believed he had had no physical relationships with men by that point. It’s generally believed that Owen was gay too, although there is no evidence to substantiate this. Yet several commentators over the years have argued the men’s sexuality fed into their poems. In his book Lads: Love Poetry of the Trenches, for example, Martin Taylor writes that knowledge of Sassoon’s homosexuality ‘locates the emotional impulse behind his work’.

To mark the end of his stay, Sassoon invited Owen to dine with him at the Conservative Club on Princes Street.  Despite the sadness Owen felt, the meal was full of laughter. He caught the midnight train at Waverley, which makes the date of departure 4 November. Exactly a year later Owen died, machine-gunned at Sambre Canal in one of the last battles of the war. He was 25, the same age his beloved Keats was when he died.

On 26 November, 1917, Siegfried Sassoon went before a Medical Board and was cleared for duty. He left Craiglockhart shortly afterwards and, despite eventually returning to the Western Front and sustaining more injuries, he survived the war. When he received news of Owen’s death, he was devastated: ‘A blank miserable sense of deprivation has dulled my mind whenever I have thought of him… Recognition of his poetry has steadily increased; but the chasm in my private existence remains.’

After the war, Sassoon embarked upon a life as an editor and writer. His poetry was never as powerful again, but he was well regarded, especially as a memoirist. He also embarked upon a series of affairs with men. He died at the age of 80 in 1967, the year homosexuality between males over the age of 21 was decriminalized in England and Wales.

* * *

There are those who believe the influence of Owen and the war poets has gone too far, and has distorted the historical record. In 2014, as World War One’s centenary began to be marked, a group of historians and politicians, including Michael Gove, argued that the war poets, along with Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War, have warped the reputation of a conflict they believed a ‘just war’ provoked by German militarism. It is true that many soldiers who wrote poems remained in favour of the war right up until the Armistice; that during World War One, Sassoon was considered a minor poet who barely features in wartime anthologies; while Owen, whose poems only began to gain a large audience in the 1960s, had a mere five poems published before his death. Nevertheless, Owen continues to be described as ‘the greatest war poet’; his poems are taught in schools; novelists, dramatists, film directors and composers have created works around his life and words; and politicians quote him when it suits. On National Poetry Day in 2010, David Cameron claimed ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ was his favourite poem; in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn recited ‘Futility’ to constituents on Remembrance Sunday.

Owen and Sassoon; Brock and Rivers. Both sets of men were intent on giving soldiers whom war had silenced their voices back. In a sense, they were all engaged in a larger project which continued beyond November 1918: a reshaping of masculinity. The patients’ breakdowns were exacerbated by shame that their masculinity had slipped. Rivers’ and Brock’s task was to persuade their patients to share their experiences, to weep for the dead, and to acknowledge both that they had tender feelings for their comrades and that it wasn’t wrong. Owen’s and Sassoon’s poetry did all this, and much more.

* * *

Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017 is a collection of literary organisations and military charities that are preparing a programme of events to mark the centenary of Owen’s time in Edinburgh. A full programme of events will be announced later in the year.

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