How a hospital meeting inspired Wilfred Owen’s World War I poetry

Published: 12 November 2023

By Auryn Cox
via the British Broadcasting Corporation web site

Craiglockhart hospital which was set up to treat shell-shocked soldiers in WW1

Staff and patients in 1917 posing in front of Craiglockhart hospital which was set up to treat shell-shocked soldiers in WW1

The horrors of World War One were expressed by many of the soldiers who fought in the conflict but few did so with such power and eloquence as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Owen is often regarded as the best wartime poet of his generation but his potential may never have been realised had he not met Sassoon at Craiglockhart, a hospital in Edinburgh for shell-shocked soldiers.

While recovering from Covid-19, American journalist and author Charles Glass used his isolation to delve into their poetry and reflect on their lives.

The hospital featured in the Regeneration novels by Pat Barker, which were published in the 1990s and later adapted for the cinema.

Glass was captivated by their story and set out to write the non-fiction version of Barker’s acclaimed trilogy.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen was killed in France just one week before Armistice Day in 1918

While researching, he found Owen’s pairing with his psychiatrist encouraged him to write poetry and proved crucial to his recovery.

The book, Soldiers Don’t Go Mad, is being launched at the site of the hospital, now a part of Edinburgh Napier University, later this month.

Glass explained: “That phrase comes from a poem by Siegfried Sassoon in which he wrote ‘soldiers don’t go mad unless they lose control of ugly thoughts’.

“There was a belief, widespread in the military and in civil society that soldiers were somehow above the weakness of mental illness that they would never become hysterical.

“But in fact, given what they went through, mental breakdown was a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.”

Read the entire article on the BBC web site.

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