Regeneration – ”The Old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.”

January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

In Paul Nash's 'We Are Making A New World'. In Nash’s bitter vision the sun will continue to rise each and every day to expose the desecration and to repeat judgment on the perpetrators. This new world is unwanted, unlovable but inescapable. (From BBC- History)

If the ridiculous war mythology of Steven Spielberg latest idiocy, War Horse, has you wanting to sink your teeth into something that doesn’t spew forth from the decrepit minds of that minority of hardened reactionaries who apparently still think that there is still something heroic, nah even gloriously tragic about that industrial massacre that was the first world war, then Regeneration is the novel for you.

Pat Baker’s novel came out in 1991 and combines fact and fiction to tell the stories of several soldiers who have been pulled from the front during the first world war and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to be treated for various mental problems, such as shell shock, resulting from their war time experiences.

One of the main characters in the novel is the real life poet and hero soldier turned anti-war icon Siegfried Sassoon and Regeneration opens with his famous declaration, Finished with the War:

”I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

You can read the rest here.

After Sassoon issues this declaration he hopes to be court marshaled by the British military and so presumably take a public stand that can reveal the barbarism of the war. He is however convinced by his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves, by both moral pressure and fraud, to take up the military’s offer of being sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital to be treated for shell-shock.

The rest of the novel mainly takes place at the Hospital and concerns the treatment of the soldiers by the doctors as they try to come to grips with the horror of  war. In particular it deals with the conflict between the fact that Sassoon doesn’t suffer any actually mental illness and the constant attempts by the doctors to find someway of making out his anti-war positions as something spawned by shell shock.

One of the most terrifying but at the same time brilliant things that Pat Baker manages to do in Regeneration is to bring to life to horrifyingly surreal experiences of the soldiers.

First of all she does this through the back stories of the various soldiers, back stories that often play an important part in their particular mental problems. Burns is probably the best (or worst) example of this. When he was at the front a bomb landed near him and threw him into the air, he then landed, head first in the ruptured stomach of a rotting soldier. Now when Burns eats his mind instantly recalls the scene and he vomits up his food, throughout much of the novel Burns is wasting away inside the hospital.

The other way Baker brings us into the experiences of shell shocked soldiers is through the way in which everyday events and items take on some insidious connection with there traumatic war time experiences. For instance a ruined fence, some mud and rain transporting the veterans back to the Somme.

Pat Baker, however, doesn’t leave it at just describing the terrible conditions of soldiers ruined by the war, she uses this as a jumping pad to critique the war- and indirectly all wars- and a series of other interlocking issues in British society in particular.

Much of this critique is brought out through Sassoon and his arguments with the other characters in the novel, in particular debates with his Doctor, Rivers, and his fried Robert Graves.

It’s useful I think to give a bit of a lengthy quote from one of their debates to give you the flavor of it. This quote begins with Sassoon complaining to Robert Graves about his treatment at the hands of the hospital.

‘he tells me I’ve got a very powerful ”anti-war complex”. I don’t even know what it means.’

[Robert Graves says] ‘I’ll Tell you what it means. It means you’re obsessed. Do you know, you never talk about the future any more? Yes I know what you’re going to say. How can you? Sass, We say on a hill in France and we talked about the future. We made plans. The night before the Somme, we made plans. You couldn’t do that now. A Few shells, a few corpses, and you’ve lost heart.’

‘How many corpses?’

‘The point is..’

‘The point is 102,000 last month alone. You’re right I am obsessed. I never forget it for a second, and neither should you . Robert, if you had any real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce in the way you do.’

Sassoon is often unrelenting in his criticism of the war, willing to abuse and upset his closet friends in order to ram his point home.

Pat Baker’s critique of the war is also shown through her exploration of the war and mental illness.

Madness and the First World War are deeply intertwined in Baker’s novel. First of all in the literal sense that the soldiers experience mental illness because of the trauma of war. However the connection between the two is also on a deeper level. The doctors, in particular Rivers, as well as some of the patients like Billy Prior grapple with the connection between mental illness and the war. For instance Billy Prior makes the argument that it is far more insane to voluntary be apart of the barbarism in the trenches than to have a mental illness. Rivers can’t fix up the contradiction that they are simply helping the soldiers to get better so they can go back to killing and most likely return to their previous state. Rivers considers this in the following passage:

‘Obviously he and Yealland [another doctor] were both in the business of controlling people. Each of them fitted young men back into the role of warrior, a role they had -however unconsciously- rejected. He’d found himself wondering once or twice recently what possible meaning the restoration of mental health could have in relation to his work. Normally a cure implies that the patient will no longer engage in behavior that is clearly self-destructive., But in the present circumstances recovery meant the resumption of activities that were not merely self-destructive but positively suicidal.’

Rivers here also recognizes his own role as a Doctor in helping the war machine to continue. This is despite the fact that he and Yealland (a Doctor who practices sadistic treatments on his patients) have opposite ways of helping soldiers, however, they have the same goal in the end, the regeneration of soldiers for war.

It would also be wrong not to mention something (not as much as I would like as I am running out of time) about Gender and Regeneration. In an interview Pat Baker said that “[Regeneration] is trying to tell something about the parts of war that don’t get into the official accounts”. This is particularly true of women in war fiction and nonfiction, Baker had a very different idea in mind as she said in the same interview, ‘In a lot of books about war by men the women are totally silenced. The men go off and fight and the women stay at home and cry; basically, this is the typical feature.’ Baker has also pointed out that the women in the munitions factories were expected to produce weapons to kill thousands, but a woman who attempts to abort her unborn child is criticized.

This is mainly done through the character of Sarah who works with a bunch of other women in a munitions factory and eventually forms a relationship with Billy Prior, a patient from the hospital. She is a tough, confident working class women character- something rare in fiction and this is important as most of the book is about men and conflicts between different men. Sarah and her friends are – unknowingly- being poisoned by their work, as the chemicals in the factory bleach their skin yellow. Baker then points out some of the contradictions of life for working class women during the war. Many of them were able to gain a level of independence and therefore confidence they never had before thanks to employment opening up due to the shortage of men. However this work was also grueling and exploitative.

This is not to say that the way that Baker deals with women’s oppression is perfect – its not, in particular the way the nurses are portrayed –  but detailing the lives of working class women in a sympathetic way that tries to grapple with the contradictions of their position in society is definitely a step better than most fiction.

There is also some talk about homosexuality and British society during the war. Sassoon implies that he is gay when talking to his Doctor Rivers and they briefly chat aboutEdward Carpenter the writer of The Intermediate Sex . Sassoon thinks that the conditions for gays are getting better but Rivers tells him otherwise:

‘I think they were. Before the War. Slightly, But it’s not very likely, is it, that any movement towards greater tolerance would persist in wartime. After all, in war you’ve got this enormous emphasis on love between men – comradeship – and everybody approves. But a the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it the right king of live? Well, one of the ways you make sure it’s the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind are.’

So, in short Pat Baker’s novel is great piece of anti-war fiction that should tide you over the current War Horse hysteria. I might give the final words to Wilfred Owen, another soldier and anti-war poet who also appears as a minor character in the novel.


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.*

*It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

PS. Sorry about the lateness of this post, it was a longer one than usual.

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