Among the many servicemen dispatched to Craiglockhart to coalesce from their ordeal of serving in the trenches were Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Their subsequent friendship and the treatment they received at Craiglockhart led to the composition of some of the greatest war poetry ever written. These poems would change the course literature and forever alter the perception of war.
In 1917, after being declared unfit for service following the publication of his anti-war letter Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart to receive treatment for what was then commonly diagnosed as neurasthenia or ‘shell shock’ but would today be recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was here that he first encountered Owen who, at the encouragement of physician Arthur Brock, wrote poetry as a means of exorcising his traumatic experiences on the front line. They immediately formed a close bond, with Sassoon mentoring the development of Owen’s distinctive poetic voice which fused Sassoon’s gritty realism with his own earlier romantic influences.
Arriving at Craiglockhart around a month after Owen, Sassoon fell under the care of psychiatrist WHR Rivers who pioneered the ‘talking cure’ to treat patients suffering from various mental disorders stemming from their combat experiences. Challenging the widely accepted ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude to shell shock which dismissed the condition as a symptom of cowardice or insanity, Rivers instead attributed it to the natural reaction of ordinary men exposed to unrellenting terror.
Believing patients should talk about rather than repress their traumatic experiences, Rivers advocated self-expression and social activity as the best cure for psychological trauma and actively encouraged Sassoon to pursue his writing.
At Owen’s behest, Sassoon contributed the poems Survivors, Sick Leave and Dreamers to The Hydra, the hospital magazine for patients and staff which Owen edited for a time. Two of Owen’s five poems published during his lifetime also appeared in the magazine including Miners and the searing Dulce et Decorum Est. Another of his best-known poems, Anthem for a Doomed Youth, was written during his time at Craiglockhart.
The friendship between Sassoon and Rivers lasted right up until the premature death of Rivers in 1922. The novel Regeneration by Pat Barker provides a fictional account of his relationship with both Rivers and Owen while at Craiglockhart.
The building now houses the university’s War Poets Collection which is available for consultation. It also boasts a fascinating permanent exhibition which allows visitors to view the collection and gain an insight into the lives and experiences of the poets, patients and medical staff at Craiglockhart.