Regeneration by Pat Barker [Review]

regenerationRegeneration. A brilliant, intense and subtle novel set in the First World War. The book is set at Craiglockhart War Hospital, 1917, a hospital for treating soldiers suffering from different forms of shell shock. It starts with anthropologist turned psychologist William Rivers waiting for the arrival of Siegfried Sassoon, who has been sent to Craiglockhart due to him protesting against the war, throwing his military cross in the Mersey River and writting a ‘letter of wilful defiance’. Robert Graves also makes an appearance in the book, a friend of Sassoon’s, who has actually sent Sassoon to Craiglockhart Hospital to spare him being court marshalled after his declaration against continuing fighting the Great War.

Throughout the book we are met by different characters suffering from shell shock. Some are fictitious and some are based on real people. Despite the fact that some patients are fictitious, Barker seems to have based them on actual cases recorded by the real Dr. Rivers which makes them as real as the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. When reading the book, you cannot help but feel a bit melancholy and sorry for the poor victims suffering from shell shock. While Dr. Rivers makes his rounds of Craiglockhart checking on his patients, you get the feel of a life surrounded by suffering and tragedy. A haunting life.


Siegfried Sassoon

Barker manages to mix fiction and fact so effortlessly. Most of her characters did actually exist. As already mention, there is Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, along with psychologists who actual did exist and treat numerous of shell shocked patients (even though in the book some are nameless). We, the reader, get to see the inside world of these magnificent characters. We meet young, idealistic Wilfred Owen shyly giving his poems to Sassoon to look at. Sassoon helps Wilfred Owen have more faith in himself and soon we experience the writing of one of Owen’s famous poems; ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.


Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

They become good friends and eventually have a mutual respect for one another. Dr. Rivers is another factual character in Regenation and you cannot help but love him. He cares for his patients and tries to treat their shell shock with the most humane way possible as well as with something close to tenderness. He himself has never been in battle so there is a distance from the horrible experience his patients have gone through. He lives the experience of warfare through his patients while secretly, I believe, feels guilty that he could not fight alongside his fellow countrymen. He believes that ”the war must be fought to a finish, for the sake of the succeeding generations”.

As well as her factual characters, Baker’s fictional characters are also very interesting. Billy Prior, for example, has a working-class background and risen to become a second- lieutenant. He comes to Craiglockhart not being able to speak (due to his experiences) as well as suffering from severe asthma. He is intelligent, ambitious, awkward and, socially and sexually ambiguous. At first, I have to admit, I was not sure whether I liked Prior as he was rude, crude and just … unbearable at times. But I did grow to like him and I was happy to see his progress and his route to recovery. His relationship to factory worker Sarah Lamb shows his softer side (I believe). Other patients (who are fictional) are: David Burns who has ‘vomiting nightmares caused by a mouthful of decomposing German flesh’ (not pleasant at all!) and Anderson, who was once a surgeon, but due to his wartime experiences cannot continue practising due to the fact that he hates the sight of blood and experiencing mental breakdowns.

There is a particular scene in the book which actually made me feel uneasy. To be fair, there were a few scenes that made me feel uneasy and so sorry for the soldiers going through all that; however, this scene takes place in a London hospital. Dr Rivers visits this particular hospital one day and watches Dr Lewis Yealland administering frequent and agonising electrical shocks to a patient who has been mute by his wartime experiences. When you area reading you can feel the terrified soldier trying to utter one single word so that this inhuman torture can stop. Even Dr Rivers feels uneasy during this ‘treatment’. We find out at the end of the book, an author’s note telling us that Dr. Lewis Yealland actually existed and he did use those ghastly methods during wartime as detailed in his book. Not my favourite part of the book at all.


W.H.R. Rivers outside of Craiglochart Hospital

Regeneration is a thoughtful, sombre and sometimes a intense read. It’s a book that explores the mental state of soldiers affected by the Great War. It is a really good read and you do get invested in the characters. You are supporting them through their treatment and hoping they get better. You feel sorry for those who probably will not get better but are still remaining hopeful for them. I would recommend it to anyone especially those who are history fanatics and are interested in the First World War, but also to anyone who wants to give it a try. I have to warn you though, it is a book about a hospital with soldiers suffering from shell-shocked, it will be upsetting at certain times.

Apparently Regeneration is the first book in a trilogy. The second book is ‘The Eye in the Door’. Might have to go and find a copy of that soon.  Enjoy!

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out these hasty orisons.

-From Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)


A day to Remember…


Today,  Monday the 4th of August, we mark the day when Britain entered the First World War 100 years ago. It was a time when the world as we knew it changed as our nations and people found themselves in a war, the like of which has never been seen before.

It’s a day to remember the victims of the Great War. Nearly three quarters of a million British men never returned. A lot of people will have relatives who died during the first World War and I will be amongst them. My great-great uncle Wilie Kerr, on my mother’s side, went off to war and died at the age of 19 in France on October 12th 1918- a month before the Armistice. It is sad to think that my grandmother Jean never got to meet her uncle, the youngest in the family. Willie was the youngest son of William and Annie Kerr.

Picture 171 (2)

S/41896 Private Willie Kerr, my great-great uncle. Photo taken by my uncle Sandy. 

I was told the story of Willie by my uncle (mum’s brother) and my aunt as they were interested to know what happened to him. I found it so interesting and sad when I heard his story. I have always been interested in my family’s history and on that day I found out something new. My cousin a few years back went on a school trip to France and managed to find Willie’s grave and placed the only picture that we have of him and a cross next to his grave. And not so long ago my uncle and aunt went to France themselves and found his grave. It’s thanked to them that I have the picture of Willie’s grave (which is linked on the left). One day I hope to go to France and see Willie’s grave for myself.

I have no clue whether I have any relations from my dad’s side of the family who might have fought in WWI, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was. Willie is someone who we remember every November on Remembrance day and buy a red poppy. And I will remember him today while I light a single candle and turn off every other light in my house between the hours of 10-11pm.

It will be a moment of darkness as lights throughout the UK will start to dim off and light one single candle. The last candles held by the congregation in Westminster Abbey for a solemn Commemoration on the Centenary of the outbreak of WWI will be extinguished. It will symbolise a horrible beginning and the start of the Great War. The idea behind extinguishing the lights is to echo the words of the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey: ”The lamps have gone out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our times”.  The last flame, held by the Duchess of Cornwall, will go out over the grave of the Unknown Warrior, which dates from 1920. When this service of remembrance dips into darkness, it will refer not only to the outbreak of war but also its end.

Today is to remember all those who died and sacrificed themselves for their country. It is a day to remember the gallant soldiers, the weak and the frightened, those shot at dawn, those holding the fort at home, and even, as thought back then, the ‘enemy’.  It is a day to remember them ALL.

— K.J.Koukas

British troops in 1914