Updated: Nov 6, 2019
How the tranquil surrounds of Craiglockhart - and a meeting at Baberton Golf Club - produced the most graphic and moving anti-war poetry of the 20th century.
Edinburgh Napier University’s Craiglockhart campus is an imposing building, purpose-built in 1880 to house a luxury spa establishment: Craiglockhart Hydropathic. Patrons could take water-based cures including Turkish, Russian and swimming baths, hot and cold plunges, spray and vapour baths, as well as all the usual hotel facilities and day trips. The list of treatments and services, printed on a piece of ivory silk, gives the impression of a no-expenses spared establishment. Success as a hydro however was short-lived; it hit financial difficulties, changed hands a couple of times, and in 1916 was requisitioned by the army as a military hospital.
Craiglockhart specialised in treatment of shell-shocked officers, at a time the military was struggling to understand and treat the masses of soldiers suffering from psychological trauma. The former luxury establishment was down at heel, but as a psychiatric hospital the building was ideal with its rooms overlooking the Pentlands, and its grounds, sporting and entertainment facilities.
It was however a battleground of a different sort; prevailing British military medical thinking, as well as society in general, viewed psychological illness as a cowardly cop-out and sufferers generally were treated in a punitive manner, not “sent on holiday in the Scottish countryside.” There was an element of shame in leaving the battlefield without being physically wounded.
A series of commanding officers came and went - possibly due to the friction between the medics in the War Office and the doctors at Craiglockhart - each with a different approach to the perplexing issue of the masses of traumatised men.
One doctor in particular, Dr WHR Rivers, pioneered controversial treatments based on getting patients to acknowledge and talk about their traumas and educating them about the genuine nature of their illness. This was at a time when other treatments included repression, punishment and electric shock. And while the Craiglockhart admissions register lists “neurasthenia” (the official term for shell shock) as the most common ailment, in some cases minor physical illnesses are listed instead; ‘migraine’, ‘glycosuria’, ‘gas poisoning’, and ‘compound fracture of toe’ for example are not obvious reasons to be admitted to a shell-shock hospital and suggest a denial on the part of some staff to acknowledge psychological factors. According to Dr Rivers the local Director of Medical Services nourished a deep-rooted prejudice against Craiglockhart and asserted that he “never had and never would recognise the existence of such a thing as shell-shock.”
In the tranquil surroundings and the careful treatments, the mutilation, blood and mud quagmires haunt the young patients. One of the officers admitted in 1917 was 24 year old Wilfred Owen, traumatised by his experiences at the Somme and placed under the care of Dr Brock. Brock encouraged his patients to face up to their trauma rather than repressing it. He advocated finding them work related to their pre-war occupations, socialising and getting involved in the community. Besides facilitating Owen’s English teaching placement in Tynecastle High School in Edinburgh, Brock encouraged Owen to describe his war experiences in his poetry - to concentrate on actual experiences not fantasies. Thus Owen started writing his war poetry at Craiglockhart. He was pleased by the arrival a couple of months later of Siegfreid Sassoon, already a published poet. The friendship and mutual sharing of ideas between the two poets, along with Dr Brock’s treatment plan, was instrumental in Owen’s literary output.
It’s ironic that Sassoon himself, whose poetry also treats of the utter insanity of war, was sent to “dottyville” (as he nicknamed Craiglockhart) because he was deemed...insane. He had published an anti-war protest and was refusing to return to the hellish front lines, actions for which he would have been court marshalled and potentially executed. He was spared because his fellow officer, the writer and poet Robert Graves, had persuaded the authorities that he was suffering from shell shock.
Another event seems to have been the catalyst for development of one of the most powerful anti-war poems of all. In October 1917 Graves visited Edinburgh to see Sassoon. On the day Sassoon had a golf match arranged at Baberton Golf Club that he wasn’t keen to cancel, so he asked for the meet to be there; Owen was tasked with collecting Graves and taking him to the Club. Thus three of the most significant English literary figures of the 20th century met at Baberton Golf Club. Owen is often referred to as perhaps the most powerful war poet in English literature, and according to historian Neil McLennan, “The boost Owen received from being endorsed by two established figures inspired him to write Dulce et Decorum est and Anthem for Doomed Youth, regarded as two of the most influential poems of the 20th century. This meeting was key to Owen’s success - it connects Owen to Graves and founds their friendship. Graves invites Owen to his January 1918 London wedding - you do not do that with someone you have met only once unless they make an impression. Both Sassoon and Graves help with the posthumous publication of his Owen’s poems and his post-war recognition.”
Owen, and separately Sassoon, were eventually declared fit to return to the front line; Owen was killed just one week before the war ended.
After the war, Craiglockhart became a convent, and later a catholic teacher training college. It was purchased by Napier College which eventually became Edinburgh Napier University and is now their business school campus.
With thanks to Neil McLennan for permission to reference his research. Historian and senior lecturer at University of Aberdeen, Neil has been researching Wilfred Owen for many years, and was actively looking for the venue of the famous meeting of the three great war poets. He finally found it in letters from 1917 in archives at Southern Illinois University.