On the centenary of the start of the Battle of Somme, the largest Western Front conflict of World War One, it's a fitting time to reflect on the role that Edinburgh's Craiglockhart Hospital played in the rehabilitation of soldiers, and the extraordinary poetic legacy left by two of the hospital's most famous patients.
The building at Craiglockhart, perched above the city of Edinburgh to the south west, had been used as a hydropathic centre, treating illnesses through the therapeutic use of water. During World War One it was taken over by the British Government for use as a military psychiatric hospital, and became known for its sympathetic (and effective) treatment of soldiers suffering shellshock, caused by the pervasive trauma of fighting in the trenches of France.
Two years after the Somme Offensive, which lasted from July to September 1916, two soldiers struck up a friendship on the wards of Craiglockhart, having been invalided here. Together Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon became known as two of the most iconic poets from that period, conveying through their writing the horrors of the ongoing conflict.
Owen came from Oswestry, a small town on the English-Welsh border (which is also my hometown), and his writing acquired an added poignancy after Owen was killed in conflict, having been sent back to the Front, just days before the end of the war. Sassoon lived until 1963, after returning to the Front in 1918, and almost immediately becoming a victim of friendly fire and spending the rest of the war in Britain.
Today the building at Craiglockhart is owned by Edinburgh's Napier University, and is maintained as one of their campuses. The War Poets are commemorated by an inscription at the building's entrance, and by a carved stone tablet in the grounds of the old hospital. Along with the work of Owen and Sassoon, these reminders of past conflicts stand as a testament to the brutal realities of armed conflict, and the horrors experienced by those involved.
A century after the Somme, the words of Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth, written during his time at Craiglockhart, and with revisions from Sassoon, remains a stirring evocation of the futile human sacrifice made by men at war:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Another of Owen's famous poems - Dulce Et Decorum Est - concludes with his ultimate condemnation of armed conflict:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The story of Owen and Sassoon in Edinburgh was fictionalised by the novelist Pat Barker in the novel Regeneration, and today their legacy is enshrined in the War Poets Collection, an archive of materials held at the building at Craiglockhart. The building may have acquired some modern additions in recent years, but the spirits of the war poets live on.
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