World War I was in some respects more terrible than World War II. For one thing, both sides were using poison gas, which was subsequently outlawed by international agreement and played no significant part in World War II. The worst aspect of World War I was the stalemated trench warfare, with hundreds of thousands of troops living like moles, cowering under artillery bombardments and making sporadic bayonet charges through barbed wire obstacles into merciless machine-gun fire. The generals on both sides used men as cannon fodder because they could think of no other way to conduct a war. In one month alone, the British suffered 102,000 casualties. A whole generation of courageous, patriotic young men was being destroyed, and Europe would never be the same again.
The so-called “Great War” has been described in such famous novels as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932; Journey to the End of the Night, 1934). Now, in Regeneration, it is approached from a different angle but with the same theme: that modern warfare is not a matter of honor and glory but a degrading, insane anachronism that should be abolished by civilized people.
Pat Barker’s new novel shows the realities of war in its effects upon British officers hospitalized at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland for a variety of physical symptoms, all brought on by what used to be called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.” The patients are all seen through the eyes of the viewpoint character, Dr. William Rivers, who is an actual historical figure. He is practicing an early form of psychiatry that employs some of the methods only recently publicized by Sigmund Freud.
Rivers, a gentle, sensitive man, tries to get the patients to talk about their combat experiences so that they can stop repressing them and relive them in memory; theoretically, by doing so they will be cured of their physical symptoms, which include hysterical blindness, muscular paralysis, spasms, stuttering, and complete loss of speech, almost invariably accompanied by insomnia and nightmares.
The unusual thing about this novel is that the author manages to convey all the horror of the trench warfare in France without ever taking the reader across the English Channel. Battle scenes that seem to be illuminated by signal flares and bursting shells are glimpsed through the memories of the hospitalized British officers.
The wealthy, aristocratic young Siegfried Sassoon, another real historical figure best remembered for his antiwar poetry, comes to gloomy Craiglockhart under duress. He has just created a sensation by publishing a brief article titled “A Soldier’s Declaration,” in which he begins with the words, “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” As an officer in the British army, Sassoon could have been court-martialed and shot for his declaration; the authorities, however, were reluctant to take such drastic action because Sassoon was not only an aristocrat but a highly decorated war hero. Furthermore, there was mounting antiwar sentiment in Great Britain because of the terrible casualties and lack of any apparent hope of victory. Sassoon’s letter was to be read in the House of Commons by a faction that supported acceptance of Germany’s offer to conclude a peace treaty.
Instead of court-martialing Sassoon, his superiors decided to declare him “mentally unsound,” an early example of a method of dealing with dissidents that later became commonplace in the Soviet Union. When Rivers examines him for the first time, he realizes that Sassoon is more of a political prisoner than a patient. Sassoon does not exhibit any of the symptoms that are so strikingly apparent in the others. He is obviously highly intelligent, well educated, and sane. Through him, Rivers begins to learn about the realities of trench warfare and begins to doubt his role as a doctor responsible for rehabilitating soldiers so that they can go back to killing and being killed.
During his stay at Craiglockhart, Sassoon meets another poet who is genuinely psychoneurotic. This is England’s best-known war poet, Wilfred Owen. The two men develop a friendship based on their mutual interests in poetry and in trying to make the public understand exactly what is going on in France. This part of the story is based on...
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