For today’s psychologists, at least the “pop” variety, today’s psychological casualties (like the suicides we discussed a bit last Friday) are a Baby Duck world: everything is new, and nothing has come before all these novelties. This stakes a claim to a certain diagnostic power that today’s pshrinks almost certainly have not got, and at the same time, neglects a body of literature of war centuries, even millennia, old. In those old times, men as smart as we are today, and unconstrained by the straitjacket of today’s psychiatric constructs, wrestled with much the same problems.
The literature of the First World War is experiencing a small bloom of appreciation, on the centennial of that conflict that imbrued a continent and decimated a generation (indeed, more than “decimated,” with that word’s ancient meaning of the slaying of one in ten, the men of the officer class, those most likely, in that era, to commit literature). Here we have Britain’s daily The Telegraph on an early poem by Wilfred Owen, one which moves us more than most of Owen’s work:
“The Dead-Beat”, one of Owen’s less well-known poems, was based on a real incident he had witnessed in France, and was the first he wrote after meeting his mentor Sassoon at Craiglockhart. The poem therefore has a strong Sassoonian influence, with a directness and bitterness untypical of Owen’s later and more subtle work.
by Wilfred Owen
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 at which he stared.
“I’ll do ‘em in,” he whined, “If this hand’s spared,
I’ll murder them, I will.”
A low voice said,
“It’s Blighty, p’raps, he sees; his pluck’s all gone,
Dreaming of all the valiant, that aren’t dead:
Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;
Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun
In some new home, improved materially.
It’s not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun.”
We sent him down at last, out of the way.
Unwounded; – stout lad, too, before that strafe.
Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, “Not half!”
Next day I heard the Doc.’s well-whiskied laugh:
“That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!”
Craiglockhart War Hospital, the place at which The Dead-Beat was written or at least inspired, was a “rest home” in one of the euphemisms of the day: a nut hatch, officers, for the use of. Sassoon nicknamed it “Dottyville;” he appears to have been grateful all his life for the “treatment” he received there, which seems to have been talk therapy from WHR Rivers, whom we’ve seen on this website before.
Rivers and that entire regime were overturned in late 1917, and an attempt to treat the patients as malingerers was attempted. This failed rather spectacularly and the next regime, once again under a “modern” physician, stressed the inmates making themselves useful. From an interesting report on the hospital’s history in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine:
Perhaps [Dr Arthur John] Brock’s most important tool, both to communicate his aims to the patients and also as a form of therapy in itself, was The Hydra, the hospital magazine. The Hydra, the many-headed monster whose defeat was one of Hercules’ most difficult labours, was to provide a jokey description of the character of the hospital—the officers, or heads, being removed (or discharged) only to be replaced by new inmates. It also provided a more serious analogy for the results of poorly carried out shell-shock treatment: the resurfacing of psychological problems in different, but equally distressing and incapacitating forms. The magazine was a vehicle through which the patients could express and share their experiences, as well as learn about the hospital ethos and activities. Brock’s patient Wilfred Owen was editor of this monthly periodical for much of his time at the hospital, and had his first published poems within its pages. Indeed, Owen did not begin writing war poetry until Craiglockhart. This was due largely to his budding friendship with Siegfried Sassoon, but it was also due to Brock’s encouragement: that he direct his artistic eye over his experiences and not his fantasies, to approach a cure by functioning. Perhaps the most famous anti-war poem, “Dulce et decorum est” was written at the hospital in 1917.
The military established Craiglockhart with a view to saving psychological casualties and returning them fit to duty. While many of the approximately 1800 patients returned to productive life, and over 700 were passed out fit for some kind of duty, a return to fitness for combat leadership was very rare. Sassoon was one passed out fit, so was Owen; but the return to France was disastrous for both. Sassoon was wounded, not fatally, in the head and invalided back to Britain, where he tried to talk Owen out of returning to the line. Owen returned to duty with his Manchester Regiment, and was shortly thereafter killed. He received the Military Cross posthumously; most of his poems wer published only posthumously. Several of them are set in the War Requiem of composer Benjamin Britten.
Here is the citation for Owen’s Military Cross:
2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.
If that was insanity, the military forces of the world depend upon it. A short month after those heroic deeds he would be slain, on November 4th — a week before the Armistice. The net has a great deal of Owen’s and Sassoon’s poetry.