Wilfred Owen, a man whose name is synonymous with War poetry, went out onto the front line in 1917. By this point, thousands of troops were already suffering from what was known as shell-shock, a condition that had become more and more prevalent after the Somme offensive the previous year. Whilst it was a recognised condition, there were still many in high command positions within the army that believed it was simply a method of shirking.
Wilfred Owen hadn’t been in the front line for very long by the time his nerve gave way. As a second lieutenant in the 2nd Manchester Regiment, Wilfred had a position of great responsibility and believed wholeheartedly in looking out for his men – going so far as to crawl across no man’s land during heavy shell fire to check on men of his in another outpost. During the period of 13-21st April 1917, Wilfred was in the front line in Savy Wood. He fell asleep one night on a wet railway bank within the wood when a massive shell exploded close to his head and sent him flying into the air.
In a letter to his mother after the incident, Wilfred mentioned how he had been unconscious for a short time and that once he had come to, he spent the following days sheltering in “a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B/Coy, 2/Lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him.”
The officer that Wilfred mentions in this letter, Gaukroger, had been killed on 2nd April. According to Wilfred, pieces of his body lay “in various places around about.” It was this time spent with the rotting body of his comrade that was one of the main reasons Wilfred suffered with shell-shock. In another letter, now lost, Wilfred mentioned that it was his duty to leave the area at around midnight. He stated that he moved across to where the French were based and knocked on the door of their HQ to ask if all was okay. After which he was answered by a simple grunt!
The Manchester’s were finally relieved on 22nd April and made an 8 mile March to relative safety of Quiviéres, where the men were to billeted in cellars. During the rest, it soon became clear that Wilfred was suffering after his ordeal at Savy Wood. On 1st May, when Major Dempster took temporary command of the Manchester’s, a comment was made that Owen had been ‘observed to be shaky and tremulous, and his conduct and manner were peculiar, and his memory was confused.” Dempster then made an insinuation that Wilfred was cowardly – a cutting remark that hit Wilfred exceptionally hard. The very next day he was sent to the Medical Officer, who sent him to 13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly which had become a specialist hospital.
To start with, Wilfred wrote home with long and cheerful letters as a way of suppressing what had happened. It may have been relief at getting away from the Front that caused him to act in such a way. There is a rather lovely story of Wilfred getting into the back of an ambulance to go to Gailly and being asked his name, only to discover that the one asking his name had been one of his school-mates from the Shrewsbury Technical. By the time Wilfred reached 13 CCS (his second visit there), the blanket name of Shell-Shock had been taken over by that of ‘neurasthenia’ – thoughts on the illness had been re-evaluated after the Somme and it was now a recognised form of mental illness. However there were many who still saw sufferers as cowards, which comes through in one of Wilfred’s most famous poems “The Dead Beat”.
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!
The poem itself, as can be clearly worked out, is about a soldier suffering with shell shock and the attitudes towards the conditions. It was seen by many as a way of malingering, a coward’s way out of the war. He, the soldier in the poem, is laughed at by the stretcher bearers and orderlies who believe the soldier is having them on, that he’s faking all of it. Yet there is an incredibly irony in the whole thing – a man suffering because of the horrors of war is being labelled as a dead beat, as scum. And rather than being in conflict with the German’s on the opposite side, he’s in conflict with his own men who believe him to be a coward. This poem seems to be Owen’s reaction to the way neurasthenia was thought of by those from the earlier days of the war who believed that shell shock was indeed the coward’s way out. And it is certainly a hard hitting poem.
As a sufferer of neurasthenia, Wilfred’s main symptoms were the violent dreams. These dreams were often used as imagery in his poems, something that he was encouraged to do by the doctor who treated him later at Craiglockhart. Other systems he had were trembling, a slight stammer and a feeling of suffocation – many of these symptoms, Wilfred had already experienced during his younger days. His symptoms, and the way his neurasthenia affected him can be picked up in his poetry, with his description of dreadful faces and phantasms. He also describes things that actually happened to him, such as a gas attack and a sentry whose eyes bulged in fear whilst trapped in a dug out.
Wilfred’s doctor at Gailly was a man by the name of William Brown. Brown’s methods of treating neurasthenia were much different than other treatments at the time – he required his patients to TALK about what had happened to them and often used hypnosis as a way of getting them to talk about their experiences. He used this as a way of identifying the experience that proved to be the breaking point for his patients. Brown often also used a treatment known as abreaction, which made the patient live through their experiences again until the original event recreated itself in such a vivid manner that it often had the patient flinging himself to the floor in tears. It certainly sounds like an awful way of doing it, but it seems to have worked for many. Wilfred, however, seemed to be happier talking about his experiences than most – so much so that just one week after arriving at the CCS he was able to tell his sister that it was sheltering amongst the remains of his comrade that had caused his breakdown.
On 6th June, Wilfred and the other patients were evacuated away from Gailly and taken to a hospital near to La Havre. On the 16th June, Wilfred sailed to Southampton and then found himself at the Welsh hospital of Netley. And on 25th June, Wilfred went before a medical board where they noted that Wilfred had a highly strung temperament. He was marked as unfit for service, and issued a transfer to the hospital of Craiglockhart up in Edinburgh.
Craiglockhart had been set up as a shell shock hospital in 1916, to help deal with the onslaught of cases after the Somme. Up until that point it had been a hydropathic hospital – the amenities of which were still available to the soldier patients, although by all accounts in poor working order.
When Wilfred first entered the hospital, after taking the overnight train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh, he would have recognised a fair few of the patients who would have been with him at Gailly. One can only imagine the embarrassment of seeing old comrades there – as an officer, Wilfred was supposed to be strong. He wasn’t supposed to be seen as weak, rather he was supposed to be seen by his men as one who couldn’t be touched. Wilfred more than likely felt like a failure in such a situation.
Wilfred Owen was registered with neurasthenia upon arrival and given his first appointment with the man who would help him to work through his troubles, Dr. Brock. It would be at Craiglockhart where Wilfred Owen would write some of his best known poems and make one of the closest friends of his very short life – Siegfried Sassoon.
Coming soon – Wilfred’s time at Craiglockhart War Hospital.
Dominic Hibbert – Wilfred Owen
Guy Cuthbertson – Wilfred Owen
Jon Stalworthy – Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen & John Bell – Selected Letters.