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Shell Shock and Mental Wellbeing of Soldiers in Charles Glass's latest book. By Benedict King

Blog | By Benedict King | Feb 06, 2024

A Ukrainian Marine Soldier by Wiki Commons Imagery

Shell shock


Soldiers Don’t Go Mad

By Charles Glass

Bedford Square Publishers £22

If the statistics are to be believed, we are suffering from an epidemic of mental illness in this country. The number of those signing off work for mental-health reasons has skyrocketed.

Of course, the statistics aren’t believed by everyone. There may be all sorts of reasons for the rise in benefits claims linked to mental-health problems, including fraud. If the rise is linked to a genuine increase in mental-health problems, it is not clear yet exactly what has caused that.

During the First World War, Britain and its military authorities faced a similar, if rather more acute, puzzle. Perfectly fit men, who had not been physically injured during the fighting, presented symptoms of such severe shock that they couldn’t – or, as some seemed to think, wouldn’t – go on fighting.

Fairly rapidly, the symptoms of shell-shock came to be recognised as a legitimate condition. As Charles Glass points out, the First World War was qualitatively different from all preceding conflicts, in the sheer industrial power of the ordnance the two sides dropped on each other on the Western Front.

Even if a soldier wasn’t hit, his senses were incessantly bombarded by a cacophony of noise and blasts, unlike anything seen in any conflict before. It wore a lot of men down to the point where they couldn’t carry on.

This book is about Craiglockhart, a former spa, which became a mental hospital for officers during the First World War.

It tells the story of the hospital’s innovative treatments and, in particular, the friendship that grew up between its two most famous patients, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Sassoon’s incarceration at Craiglockhart was unusual. He had refused to continue fighting, deploring the war in its entirety, both conduct and objectives.

Sassoon came from a socially eminent family. He was also known to have been fearless in the field and had already won the Military Cross – so no one could accuse him of cowardice. Insisting that he had had a breakdown and needed treatment was the easiest way out for everyone.

Owen, who hailed from a humbler social background, was less sure-footed as a poet, and really had had a breakdown.

Sassoon took Owen under his wing, to some extent. In particular, he encouraged his poetry and helped Owen finesse his style.

Craiglockhart was a little bit like a university. There was cricket and golf to be played, amateur dramatics, concerts and an in-house magazine, The Hydra.

For Owen, this regime and the tutelage of Sassoon were liberating. He edited the magazine, wrote poems, which he shared and discussed with Sassoon, and took German lessons from the librarian at Edinburgh University.

Sassoon was visited by his friend Robert Graves, who also gave Owen advice on his poetry. Owen’s time at Craiglockhart seems to have genuinely transformed his poetic output. Graves and Sassoon certainly thought so. He arrived almost as Sassoon’s pupil and left as his peer.

Craiglockhart’s success was measured by the number of men it got back into the field fighting. Far more patients from Craiglockhart returned to the fighting than from other military mental hospitals during the First World War.

Sassoon went back to the front and suffered a bad head injury, which took him out for the rest of the war.

Perhaps if Craiglockhart hadn’t been so successful in restoring Owen’s mental health, he would never have had to return to the fighting and might have died a venerable man of letters in the late-20th century. Instead, he too returned to his regiment and to the front, fighting extremely bravely and winning an MC – which was important to him, as he wanted to be on a par with Sassoon as a soldier as well as a poet. He was killed, aged 25, on 4th November 1918, while leading his men across a river. It was a week before the armistice.

Sassoon died, aged 80, in 1967.

This is an interesting book in many ways, the central part of the story being Owen and his extraordinary transformation at Craiglockhart. The story of how the Craiglockhart regime proved so successful in treating shell-shocked soldiers is also fascinating.

I put it down wanting to know more about both: Owen’s transformation as a man and a poet; and the regime that was put in place at Craiglockhart – with perhaps a bit more about some of the other patients.

But, anyway, a book that is a spur to further reading is a good book.

Benedict King worked at the Bank of England