War poets

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the meeting in Edinburgh of the war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Through the remainder of the year, a programme of activities to mark the centenary will be running under the banner ‘Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017’.

We will have returned to New Zealand by the time most of these commemorative events take place, but the other day I made a little expedition to the location that is most strongly associated with Owen’s and Sassoon’s time in Edinburgh: Craiglockhart, in Edinburgh’s southwest.

In 1880, Craiglockhart Hydropathic opened, providing the then-fashionable water therapy based on hot and cold baths. From 1916 to 1919, the building was requisitioned by the military for use as a treatment centre for shell-shocked officers. It was here that Owen and Sassoon met, having both been sent to Craighlockhart for treatment (in Sassoon’s case, treatment was an alternative to court martial, after he had written a scathing letter criticising the war in which he was fighting). Sassoon encouraged Owen’s writing, and particularly encouraged him to write about his experience of war, which Owen did in poems that have become perhaps the most famous poetic representations in English of the First World War.

By the standards of the day, the doctors at Craiglockhart took a sympathetic view of the mental trauma suffered by their patients, influenced by some of the latest thinking in psychiatry. Sassoon’s doctor W.H.R. Rivers, who had previously been an anthropologist (including in Australia’s Torres Strait Islands), developed a close relationship with his patient, one that is portrayed in Pat Barker’s excellent novel, Regeneration. Barker’s novel explores the contradiction that lay at the heart of the work of Craiglockhart: that the job of the hospital was to help men to become ‘sane’ enough to return to the insane conditions of the Western Front. In an editorial for the hospital’s journal, Owen wrote that ‘many of us who came to the Hydro slightly ill are now getting dangerously well’. Of the 1801 officers treated there, 758 returned to active service, including both Owen and Sassoon. Wilfred Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, only a week before the Armistice.

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Today, the former Craighlockhart Hydro building is part of Edinburgh Napier University, where it has been joined up with a somewhat futuristic egg-shaped building.
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Despite this odd conjunction of architectural styles, the university has recognised its important historical connection with the Craiglockhart Hydropathic, and with the war poets in particular. It is home to the War Poets Collection and to a related permanent exhibition.

On the campus, and walking around the nearby woods and hills, it is easy to see how the environment would have been restorative to men traumatised by war.

The connection between the poets and the landscape is recognised in a sculpture, ‘Hillside’, at the nearby shops. Erected in 2012, the sculpture represents the local hills and includes the whole text of Owen’s poem ‘Spring Offensive’.

From Craiglockhart I walked through the suburb of Morningside to Grange Cemetery. Quite a few notable people in Scotland’s religious, political and business history are buried there, but one of the most interesting memorials is that to a relatively recent political figure, Robin Cook. Cook was Foreign Secretary from 1997 to 2001 in Tony Blair’s Labour Government. In 2003, he famously resigned from Cabinet due to his opposition to the Iraq War. The epitaph on his tombstone reads: ‘I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war’.
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