As the European Powers commemorate the Armistice that ended World War One, little attention is paid to those who spoke out against the carnage when it was going on. Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy focuses on the poet and British army officer Siegfried Sassoon, who made a public declaration against the war in July 1917. Sassoon, who had been decorated as a war hero, wanted to be court-martialed in order to publicize his opinions. Convinced by his friend Robert Graves that this would not be allowed, he agreed to attend a Medical Board hearing. In so doing he permitted the army to say he was suffering from ‘war neurosis’ and was therefore mentally unfit.
Barker’s trilogy is a fictionalized account of the encounter between Sassoon and the army psychologist Dr.W.H.R. Rivers. Confronted with Sassoon’s all-too-evident sanity, Rivers is forced to question his own role. He is curing men who suffer from shell shock so that they can be sent back to the front. He is horrified by the electrical shock treatment used on patients by his colleague Dr Yealland. After dreaming that he has been forcing a horse’s bit into a patient’s mouth, Rivers concludes that he and Yealland are doing the same thing:
A horse’s bit. Not an electrode, not a teaspoon. A bit. An instrument of control. Obviously he and Yealland were both in the business of controlling people. Each of them fitted young men back into the role of warrior, a role they had – however unconsciously – rejected. He’d found himself wondering once or twice recently what possible meaning the restoration of mental health could have in relation to his work. Normally cure implies that the patient will no longer engage in behavior that is clearly self-destructive. But in present circumstances recovery meant the resumption of activities that were not merely self-destructive but positively suicidal. But then in a war nobody is a free agent. He and Yealland were both locked in, every bit as much as their patients were.
Despite growing doubts, Rivers advises Sassoon to conform in order to save himself. As a homosexual and a Jew, Sassoon is vulnerable to attack and the army’s clampdown on homosexual practices cuts him off from his closest friends. When Rivers suggests that he oppose the war in private, like Oscar Wilde’s friend Robert Ross, Sassoon refuses:
I wouldn’t want to criticize Ross. I think I know him well enough to understand the impact those trials had on him. But what you’re really saying is, if I can’t conform in one area of life, then I have to conform in the others. Not just on the surface things, everything. Even against my conscience. Well, I can’t live like that.’ He paused, then added, ‘Nobody should live like that.’
— Catherine Vigier, Zeteo Contributing Writer
Pat Barker, Regeneration. London, Penguin Books, 1992.
Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door. London, Penguin Books, 1994.
Pat Barker, The Ghost Road. London, Penguin Books, 1996.
Photo: Siegfried Sasson by George Charles Beresford/ Wikimedia Commons