Doctor W. H. R. Rivers worked was an English psychiatrist whose pioneering work was the treatment of war neurosis – i.e. shell-shock – in soldiers underneath his care at Craiglockhart Hospital. He treated poet Siegfried Sassoon, with whom he developed a friendship, and in 1917, a year before the end of the war, delivered a paper on the treatment and pathology of shellshock to the Section of Psychiatry of the Royal Society of Medicine. In it, he went through what he called the ‘process of repression’: that is, illustrating the difference between the ‘state’ of repression, and the ‘process’ of repression, wherein one was harmful and the other was an educational, protective measure.
His piece de resistance was an illustrating case on the very habits of shellshock. Rivers wrote:
The first case is that of a young officer who was sent home from France on account of a wound received just as he was extricating himself from a mass of earth in which he had been buried. When he reached hospital in England he was nervous and suffered from disturbed sleep and loss of appetite. When his wound had healed he was sent home on leave where his nervous symptoms became more pronounced, so that at his next board his leave was extended. He was for a time an out-patient at a London hospital and was then sent to a convalescent home in the country. Here he continued to sleep badly, with disturbing dreams of warfare, and became very anxious about himself and his prospects of recovery. Thinking he might improve if he rejoined his battalion, he made so light of his condition at his next medical board that he was on the point of being returned to duty when special inquiries about his sleep led to his being sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for further observation and treatment.
On admission he reported that it always took him long to get to sleep at night and that when he succeeded he had vivid dreams of warfare. He could not sleep without a light in his room because in the dark his attention was attracted by every sound. He had been advised by everyone he had consulted, whether medical or lay, that he ought to banish all unpleasant and disturbing thoughts from this mind. He had been occupying himself for every hour of the day in order to follow this advice and had succeeded in restraining his memories and anxieties during the day, but as soon as he went to bed they would crowd upon him and race through his mind hour after hour, so the every night he dreaded to go to bed.
Explore Repression of War Experience
Perhaps aping the title of his infamous paper, Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Repression of War Experience’ deals with precisely what W.H.R. Rivers wrote about: a soldier whose attempt to repress his memories is manifesting itself in acute shellshock. In it, the soldier, unnamed and on leave, attempts to convince himself that he is right as rain, before succumbing to the memories of his war experience.
Sassoon’s poem, ‘Repression of War Experience’, can be read in full here.
Analysis of Repression of War Experience
Interestingly enough, soldiers who were accused of suffering from shellshock were, for a time, considered to be cowards, and in 1915, the British army was instructed to mark out cases of shellshock with ‘S’: Shell-shock and shell concussion cases should have the letter ‘W’ prefixed to the report of the casualty if it was due to the enemy; in that case, the patient would be entitled to rank as ‘wounded’ and to wear on his arm a ‘wound stripe’. If, however, the man’s breakdown did not follow a shell explosion, it was not thought to be ‘due to the enemy’, and he was to [be] labeled ‘Shell-shock’ or ‘S’ (for sickness) and was not entitled to a wound stripe or a pension’. It was only later on in the war – 1917 – that the British Army began treating shellshock with the seriousness that it required.
Siegfried Sassoon takes the disjointed, broken mind of the soldier, and applies it to poetic form in this poem. He uses no rhyme scheme – the soldier’s mind is far too shattered for this – and every image that he uses within ‘Repression of War Experience’ comes attached to a memory, giving it the feel of something almost alive. ‘Repression of War Experience’ sways between the reality and the present, leaving the reader unaware of what is actually happening within the poem itself. Siegfried Sassoon was infamously a patient at Craiglockhart, where he was diagnosed with shellshock himself, along with Wilfred Owen; one can almost imagine that this poem is drawn from biographical elements.
In the first stanza, Sassoon’s benign focus on the moth morphs into the image of flame on the battlefield (one can take this as remembrance of flamethrower usage – the first flamethrower was used in Verdun in 1915). ‘No, no, not that,—it’s bad to think of war, / When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;’, Siegfried writes, and the soldier shuffles away to try and keep his mind occupied.
All throughout ‘Repression of War Experience’, the soldier attempts to keep his broken mind from folding in on itself with memories of war. He looks at the books in his shelves, but he’s unnerved by the image of a moth again, bumping against the ceiling – ‘And in the breathless air outside the house / The garden waits for something that delays.’, again showing the war mentality, the idea of fluttering malevolence, and waiting all day for an attack, or for the ‘push’, the call to go over the top of the trenches and face the German army.
The phrase ‘old men with ugly souls’ could refer to the military censors, the press, anyone who profited from the war, and thus hid the true nature of it from the public, which again forms the circular theme of repression. Not just the soldier, then, whose mind has been warped, but also the British public, led to believe that those suffering from shellshock were cowards or otherwise undeserving of treatment.
Near the end, the soldier’s descent into madness strikes a jarring chord with the reader. If perhaps the reader has been unaware until this point that the soldier is, as he writes, ‘stark, staring mad’, the final stanza exposes the fraught state of his mentality and allows the reader to feel pity for him, to understand what he is going through, and to be angry on his behalf.
Siegfried Sassoon Background
Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were among the few war poets in England who saw it as their civic duty to expose the cruelties of the war that other poets – most notably Rupert Brook, who never saw action – merely papered over with glory.
Sassoon later wrote a trilogy about his experience called the Sherston trilogy, which won high acclaim, most notably Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, which took the Hawrthornden Prize for literature in 1928.