They’d been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men. (p. 48)
In Regeneration, soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon is undergoing treatment at Craiglockhart, a military hospital in Scotland. Sassoon took a public stance against the war by writing A Soldier’s Declaration, and was deemed unfit for service. Instead of court-martial, he was sent to Craiglockhart to be treated for shell-shock. He developed a strong bond with his psychiatrist, Rivers. He also befriended another war poet, Wilfred Owen.
While Sassoon and Rivers are the central characters of this novel, their story is simply a device to convey a more important message about the horrific impact of war on those who spent time at the front:
One of the paradoxes of the war — one of the many — was that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was … domestic. Caring. And the Great Adventure — the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys — consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed. The war had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down. (p. 107)
World War I resulted in 16 million deaths (nearly 10 million were military). The war also had far-reaching impact through physical and psychological trauma. Another Craiglockhart patient, Billy Prior, came to the hospital unable to speak after an incident at the front. Others experienced terrible nightmares; many stammered. While Regeneration is mostly about the soldiers, there is a side story about a group of young women working in a munitions factory. One of them accompanies a friend to visit her fiancé in hospital, and comes across a group of severely injured men hidden away from the public eye:
She backed out, walking away in the sunlight, feeling their eyes on her, thinking that perhaps if she’d been prepared, if she’d managed to smile, to look normal, it might have been better. But no, she thought, there was nothing she could have done that would have made it better. Simply by being there, by being that inconsequential, infinitely powerful creature: a pretty girl, she had made everything worse. (p. 160)
As a civilian, she was shocked by their condition, and also keenly aware that these men would never again experience full physical and emotional relationships with women.
Every page of this book was a sobering reminder of the horrors of war. This is the first of a trilogy; the next book (The Eye in the Door) focuses on the character of Billy Prior. I’m looking forward to reading rest of the trilogy in the coming months.