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Remembrance Day: Edinburgh’s link to famous war poets

ByCraig Buchan

Nov 10, 2020

Remembrance Day is this Wednesday, marking the anniversary of the end of the First World War and remembering those who gave their life in the service of the armed forces.

The connection between poetry and the First World War is well documented, but Edinburgh’s connection to some of the most famous war poets is less recognised. Now part of Edinburgh Napier University, the city’s Craiglockhart Hydropathic was requisitioned by the army for use as a psychological hospital in 1916.

It treated some of the most renowned poets of the war, including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and now houses the War Poets Collection. Several of Sassoon’s poems appeared in hospital magazine The Hydra and Owen edited the magazine for six editions, anonymously publishing his own poetry for the first time.

The doctors treating Sassoon and Owen had a significant impact on their work, yet are not widely recognised in literary criticism. Dr William Rivers and Dr Arthur John Brock both had profound effects on the poets in their care.

Speaking to The Student, Curator of the War Poets Collection Catherine Walker said: “The main influence of being in Edinburgh and Craiglockhart to Siegfried Sassoon was meeting Dr William Rivers, who had an enormous and lasting influence on Sassoon, becoming his father-figure and close friend. 

“Sassoon enjoyed the local golf courses, walking in the Pentland Hills and composing poetry, some of which appeared in The Hydra.” 

As for Owen, she said: “Dr Brock believed in ergotherapy, or the work cure, where familiarity with the local environment and worthy activity was key to recovery.

“Thus, Owen was tasked to write articles and participated in hospital life by being a member of the Field Club, editing The Hydra for six issues, teaching at Tynecastle School, acting in a play and learning German language, quite apart from his brilliant poetry.”

Also speaking to The Student, Neil McLennan, a Senior Lecturer at University of Aberdeen specialising in First World War poetry, added: “It was Dr Arthur John Brock who was the catalyst to Owen using writing and poetry as a method to support his recovery. 

“Brock has not received the acknowledgement and credit he deserves in history.”

Sassoon and Owen meeting at Craiglockhart for the first time is widely recognised to have impacted the work of both poets, but particularly Owen who was only beginning his work as a poet.

Walker said: “Sassoon was, of course, more experienced and already a published poet who Wilfred was excited to meet.

“However, Owen retained a strong belief in his own poetic voice and ability. Although Owen valued Sassoon’s opinions highly and really admired him, Owen stayed true to himself and his style did not become an echo of Sassoon’s.”

In his 2019 article ‘Six O’Clock in Princes Street: an analysis of Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh ‘re-education’ ’, McLennan highlights the influence of the city itself.

He said: “Edinburgh and its people were supremely significant to Owen as a man and as a poet,” adding: “One hundred years on, his most powerful words, written in Edinburgh, still resonate and are read at remembrance ceremonies across the country and Commonwealth.”

Craiglockhart’s influence on war poetry goes beyond its most famous names. Other poets treated in Edinburgh include the Canadian Frank Prewett, known for falsely claiming Native American heritage due to his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as his moving poetry.

Prewett returned to Scotland later in life and died in Inverness in 1962, a mark of the influence of his earlier time here.

Victor Perowne, who was later knighted and enjoyed a successful career as a diplomat, was another lesser-known poet to be treated in Edinburgh, as was Scottish poet JB Salmond, who worked with Owen while editing The Hydra and went on to work for the Dundee Advertiser and become editor of The Scots Magazine.

McLennan said: “JB Salmond is a powerful writer and figure in civic Scotland. Salmond’s ‘Poppies’ is as powerful as John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ as far as I am concerned.”

The poets who passed through Craiglockhart, whether infamous or with a smaller following, and their work are a crucial part of how academics study and how everyday people remember the First World War.

Walker said: “Poetry from the First World War has certainly influenced how later generations viewed the conflict.

“Who is not affected and influenced by poems such as ‘The General’ or ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’?” Even the simpler verses that appeared in The Hydra written by other officers paint a picture that allows us a glimpse into their experiences.

“Creative writing from lived experience is a powerful thing.” McLennan added: “The Great War was a poet’s war. It was the medium many used to capture emotions and thoughts.

“Without the poems we would not have the insight and images we have of 1914-1918. 

“They are part of a rich bricolage of sources which builds a picture of one of the worst episodes in humanity.

“The fact that men were able to write such a powerful verse during such horrendous times is a testament to the power of humanity and creativity. 

“Thank goodness they did leave volumes of verse. They support our understanding and are critical to our memorialisation of conflict. 

“What is most interesting is the “anti-war” sentiments in these “war poems”. We need to keep learning those lessons today.”

Image: Becky Spiers