Rating: 4 Stars
This is part one of a trilogy named, imaginatively enough, the Regeneration Trilogy. Many years ago, I read the second in the series, The Eye In The Door, which in retrospect was a mistake.
The trilogy is set in England in the midst of WWI. The format is historical fiction of a sort. The characters in the book are real and the events somewhat reflect reality, but there is no pretense that this is some historically accurate reenactment of dialog or anything like that.
It starts with the pacifist declaration of Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon is an upper class war hero who has made a public declaration that the war is immoral and should be stopped. As I discovered reading To End All Wars, England treated conscientious objectors rather ruthlessly. However, in Sassoon’s case, being a war hero and with his lineage, the government could not very well throw him into jail quietly. He would have become a cause celebre to the pacifist movement.
Instead, they declare him unfit and send him off to a mental hospital. There he will be treated by the psychiatrist Dr Rivers, where it is hoped that he’ll see the error of his ways and renounce pacifism.
Dr Rivers is a true believer in England and the cause of WWI. On the other hand, he is deeply empathetic to the mentally broken young men that are in his care. He wishes each to become well again and he wishes nothing but the best for them. However, in curing them of their mental illness, the result is that they will be sent back to France, where in all likelihood, they will die.
This conflict is at the heart of the book. There are other young men in similar situations as Sassoon, but the heart of the book is the relationship between Rivers and Sassoon.
There are several general themes throughout. One is the horror of the war. In flashbacks, the young men describe the horrors of trench warfare, of being constantly under fire, of being forced on suicide attacks by ignorant and incompetent generals, and of watching their comrades fall.
Witnessing such carnage inevitably must have an impact on the psyche. You have Burns, who in an explosion was catapulted face first into the decaying abdomen of a German, now unable to eat. You have Prior, who having just walked away and then comes back to the aftermath of an explosion and sees body parts of his friends strewn around, now unable to speak.
Nearly all of them stutter. This hospital is for officers. Officers must give orders with authority. These men, all having been given orders that they then must turn around and pass down to their men, develop stutters because they are at a loss for words but are in a position in which they must speak.
Dr Rivers patiently works with each of them and tries to achieve breakthroughs that will bring them back to robust mental health.
And, remember that by bringing them back to mental health means that they then go back to France to fight in the front lines of trench warfare.
The interesting thing is, despite all of what they have witnessed and have suffered, nearly all of the men want to go back. None of them want to wear the white feather of cowardice that civilians bestow upon young men in England that they believe are shirking their responsibilities. And the young men do feel their responsibilities. It’s not clear how many of them still believe in the cause itself, but they nearly all believe in their duty and, even more importantly, want to be there with their fellow soldiers.
Even Sassoon (and hopefully this is not a spoiler, it is a biographical fact), the pacifist who never loses his contempt for the way that the war is being waged, ultimately agrees to leave the hospital and rejoin the war effort under the sole condition that he gets sent back to the front lines of France.
By the end, Dr Rivers is also changed. He now no longer believes in the sanctify of the war effort and begins to question his role in it.
There are many other things that I can write about that Barker includes in this rich book. Barker touches upon the role of women in the war effort and how it changed them. Almost in a throwaway, she introduces Dr Yealland, a foil to Dr Rivers, who basically believes that all mentally ill soldiers are shirking and makes use of extensive, painful electro-shock therapy to bring soldiers back to ‘health’.
I have to confess that WWI baffles and horrifies me. I’ve read multiple histories and even now I’m not really sure why it actually started. Obviously I know about Franz Ferdinand and all of that, but how do you get from a Serbian nationalist assassinating an Archduke to around 40 million casualties?
When I was in London, I went to the Imperial War Museum (which I wrote about here) located, ironically enough, in the old Bedlam hospital. As you can imagine, the English know and have fought in a war or two. However, the largest exhibit by far is WWI. It had a massive impact on England at all levels. For example, the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, had a son die in the war while he was serving as Prime Minister.
It’s hard to imagine that happening in the US, where by and large we expect our poor to fight our wars for us. For example, the Prime Minister’s son, Raymond Asquith, was 37 years old when he died. At the time of this writing, Donald J Trump Jr is 39 years old. Can you imagine President Trump being willing to sacrifice his son as a soldier in a war? During the Invasion of Iraq, there was a shockingly low number of politician’s sons and daughters fighting in it. As a nation, probably not since the Civil War have we seen anything like it.