Regeneration by Pat Barker: Shell Shock, War Poets, and Great Friendships

Postcards of Siegfried Sassoon
Postcards of Siegfried Sassoon. Image from

I always enjoy reading about novelists, poets and characters that I have some sort of connection with. This is perhaps why I enjoyed Regeneration so much: it tells of Siegfriend Sassoon, a poet who was born in Kent, twenty minutes from where my family and I have always lived. Before declining to return to active service, Sassoon threw the ribbon from his Military Cross into the Mersey, the river which I cross by train at least twice a month when seeing my boyfriend in Liverpool. Upon researching the novel further, I found out that William Rivers, the psychiatrist who treats Sassoon and plays a major part in Regeneration, went to the prestigious school where my brother now trains for athletics.

Little facts such as these always make a text more enjoyable for me. Regardless of this factor,  Regeneration is also a remarkable account of war poets, “shell shock”, and the doctors that treated it after World War I. In this inspiring and incredibly well-researched novel, Barker characterises both Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, alongside their contact at Craiglockhart Hospital following the war.

Sassoon was born to a Jewish father and Anglo-Catholic mother. There was no German ancestry in Siegfried’s family; his mother named him Siegfried because of her love of Wagner’s operas. He was always a keen hunter, and despite his decoration and reputation, he decided in 1917 to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his anti-war feeling was the death of his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas, which Sassoon would spend years trying to overcome. Regeneration opens with Sassoon’s letter to his commanding officer entitled “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”, that was sent shortly before Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital, near Edinburgh. In Regeneration we see Sassoon as a struggling young man who is both unsure of his position towards the war and his direction in life, and who plays a copious amount of golf.

Wilfred Owen and Regeneration
Wilfred Owen. Image from Wikipedia.

Wilfred Owen, on the other hand, enters the novel as a shy, stuttering character who is insecure towards himself and his writing (or lack of it). Meeting with Sassoon at Craiglockhart, however, marks a great moment of transition and transformation in the life of Wilfred Owen. Sassoon, both in reality and in Barker’s blend of fact and fiction, encouraged Owen to dedicate more time to his poetry, and provided a great deal of both criticism and praise. As a part of his therapy at Craiglockhart, Owen’s doctor, Arthur Brock, also encouraged Owen to translate his experiences, specifically the experiences he relived in his dreams, into poetry.

The descriptions of shell shock, both in Barker’s novel and the poetry produced by Owen and Sassoon, is nothing less than intense. Some of the events witnessed by patients at Craiglockhart are simply unimaginable to most of us. Barker’s accuracy in depicting the brutalising effects of trauma on a generation of young men is remarkably done, and we are left unable to doubt the trauma of war. However, what is perhaps most carefully constructed is the implications of the various surgeons and clinicians in the all-consuming effects of war. Army psychiatrist William Rivers, who becomes nothing less than a mentor and guide to Sassoon, is himself a stutterer, and experiences flashbacks and hears noises that makes him closer to his patients than anyone could expect.

Craiglockhart, the hospital in Regeneration
“Nobody arriving at Craiglockhart for the first time could
fail to be daunted by the sheer gloomy, cavernous bulk of
the place.” Image from BBC.

Trauma pervades the novel in a manner that is so well-researched and subtly entwined into the wider plot. After reading Regeneration, we cannot help but consider how our own lives would have been affected by global conflict, and question how we may have considered the morality of political decisions. I enjoyed this novel more than Toby’s Room, Pat Barker’s sequel, and I’m keen to read more of the Regeneration trilogy. As someone who has undergone therapy for PTSD, this novel hit me hard on several occasions, but it really got me thinking about my own symptoms and recovery process. It has also got me wondering about the cause of my own habit of stammering at stuttering at certain times.

Don’t hesitate to read this book if you’re interested in war poets, mental health, and the morality of destruction and devastation. It’s certainly a memorable read.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(An extract from “Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen)

My rating: 4.5/5


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