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Sweat your guts out writing poetry

Little did Siegfried Sassoon know when he gave that advice to fellow soldier Wilfred Owen that his protege would go on to write some of the most searing works of the First World War


‘They were sent to be rehabilitated, in order to return to the very hell that got them into that state’

Soldiers Don’t Go Mad

Charles Glass Bedford Square £22

When Wilfred Owen walked nervously along the corridor of Craiglockhart Hospital for shell-shocked officers in Edinburgh on the morning of August 18, 1917, he tapped on the door of Siegfried Sassoon’s bedroom. He was daring to introduce himself to the poet he deeply admired – though Sassoon was so busy polishing his golf clubs that he barely looked up.

‘Short, dark-haired and shyly hesitant… I took an instinctive liking to him,’ Sassoon later recalled – though he admitted that he found Owen’s Shropshire accent rather grating at first. Owen, aged 24, the son of a railway worker from Oswestry, was dazzled by the handsome, high-born, published poet six years his senior who’d been to Cambridge and been awarded a Military Cross for gallantry. ‘He is very tall and stately with a fine, firm, chiselled head,’ he gushed in a letter.

The two men chatted about Sassoon’s poems, until Owen dared to mention that he too was a poet, though not yet a published one.

That brief meeting would turn out to be the beginning of a deep and all-too-brief friendship between them: a friendship Charles Glass celebrates in this deeply moving book, which switches back and forth between the hell of the trenches and the healing paradise of Craiglockhart.

It was the institution to which officers in a state of nervous collapse – stammering, gibbering, mute, shaking from their traumatic experiences – were sent to be rehabilitated, in order to be returned to the very hell of mud, blood and decaying corpses that had got them into that state in the first place.

With hindsight, we know that on the day of that meeting Owen had just under 15 more months to live. The knowledge that his mother would receive the telegram announcing her son’s death on Armistice Day – November 11, 1918 – when church bells were ringing out across the country, haunts the pages of this devastating and fascinating story.

A few days after that first meeting, Owen showed Sassoon one of his poems. Sassoon was impressed and advised him to ‘sweat your guts out writing poetry’. Which was exactly what Owen proceeded to do, giving us some of the most heartbreaking, searing poetry of the First World War.

Sassoon became Owen’s mentor, suggesting small tweaks to his masterpiece Anthem For Doomed Youth, introducing him to the literary set and helping him to get his poems published in magazines. Both men cared deeply about poetry, and were both closet homosexuals. We do not know whether their friendship spilled over into love, but Glass doesn’t suggest that it did.

One important fact to bear in mind here: Sassoon was not, in fact, suffering from shellshock. While the other 170 or so patients in Craiglockhart, including Owen, were there because they’d been reduced to nervous wrecks by the unimaginable horrors they’d encountered in the deafening and unending nightmare of the trenches, Sassoon was there for quite a different reason.

He had dared to question the war itself. Sickened and appalled by the bloodthirsty slaughter he’d witnessed, horrified that young men were being sent to their deaths by politicians whose aims, he believed, had changed from ‘defence and liberation’ to ‘aggression and conquest’, he wrote and circulated a protest statement in July 1917, declaring that he refused to perform any further military duties. ‘I have seen and endured the suffering 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.’

A liberal MP read out his statement in the House of Commons.

To make such a statement was heresy, risking imprisonment with hard labour. What should the War Office do to rid themselves of this turbulent subaltern?

They knew Sassoon was inviting them to court-martial him, which would have meant putting the whole war on trial. Instead, they came up with a crafty alternative to spare themselves the embarrassment of prosecuting a war hero and prominent poet.

The Medical Board declared him ‘not responsible for his actions as he was suffering from a nervous breakdown’, and they sent him to Craiglockhart.

Or ‘Dottyville’, as Sassoon nicknamed the institution. He kept himself in proud isolation there, having as little as possible to do with ‘the failures at dinner’, as he called them. There he sat, in his bedroom, polishing his golf clubs, shunning everyone except Owen. At night, he heard the screams of the patients as they suffered from their nightmares. ‘By night,’ Sassoon wrote, ‘each man was back in his doomed sector of a horror-stricken Front Line.’

Owen came under the care of the psychiatrist Dr Arthur Brock, an advocate of ‘ergotherapy’ – work therapy, or ‘keep them busy every waking hour’.

He submitted willingly to the frenetic programme: a cold swim before breakfast, followed by endless activities from debating to sports to gardening. He became the editor of The Hydra, the hospital’s in-house magazine, in which he published Sassoon’s poems (but not his own).

Glass paints a touching portrait of this extraordinary institution, supervised by the marvellously useless matron, Miss Margaret MacBean, whose food was pretty filthy and hygiene standards lax.

Sassoon felt increasingly guilty for having abandoned his regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. After one conscience-stricken night, he decided to go back to France and fight. He needed to prove to his critics that he was willing to die.

Owen was discharged on October 30, after 126 days in the hospital. The two friends met twice more. The first meeting was over dinner and ‘a bottle of noble Burgundy’ at the Scottish Conservative Club, during which Owen said to Sassoon: ‘You have fixed my life – however short’. They saw each other once more in London for a harpsichord concert and a visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden.

‘I parted from him,’ Sassoon later wrote, ‘in deluded ignorance that he was on final leave before returning to the Front.’

Sassoon was shot in the head and injured by a British soldier thinking he was a German, and was sent back to another hospital in Scotland. Owen was shot and killed on November 4, 1918 as he was leading his men across a canal in full view of German machine-gunners on the opposite side.

As Glass writes, ‘Owen was a success for Craiglockhart, and for ergotherapy, but for him the outcome was death.’

It was as simple, and as horrifying, as that.





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