Pat Barker’s World War I
World War I is the great obsession of British novelist Pat Barker (b. 1943)—and the lode she has mined for her best books, like the in-progress trilogy that continued, in 2012, with Toby’s Room. Through precise observation of the war-altered lives of her characters, who include historical figures, Barker masterfully conveys the conflict’s full magnitude. This map connects Barker’s books with other art arising from the ashes of “the war to end all wars.”
Throughout time, some soldiers have suffered severe, lasting psychological consequences from their experiences in battle. Not until World War I, however, was combat-related mental illness given a name: shell shock. From the war’s first months, shell shock was widespread—the effect, wrote British psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers, of soldiers being subjected to “strains such as have never previously been known in the history of mankind.” Rivers is a central character in Pat Barker’s multiple-prize-winning trilogy Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). At Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland (also the main setting for Regeneration), Rivers worked to restore the mental health of shell-shock victims—so they could be sent back to the front. His difficult quest to understand his patients and his deep conflict over his morally fraught assignment are major themes of these novels.
The term shell shock, alluding to the artillery bombardments WWI fighters endured, is no longer used, but as the experience of returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets shows, the phenomenon now called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, remains very much with us. Director Paul Haggis’s harrowing 2007 film In the Valley of Elah is a fictionalized account of one case.
In Britain especially, World War I inspired an incredible quantity of verse. Near the war’s beginning, when most Brits were enthusiastically swept up in anti-German fervor, the poetry tended toward the nationalistic, idealistic and naive—witness Rupert Brooke’s sonnet “Peace,” published in early 1915, which compares young men called to war to “swimmers into cleanness leaping.” (Brooke never saw action, dying of an infection from a mosquito bite while en route to the Battle of Gallipoli later that year.) But as the awful conflict persisted and corpses piled up, men who had actually been in the trenches shelved literary propriety to write bitterly about their experiences. The poetry took a darker, cynical turn, as in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches” (1918), which advises the “smug-faced,” cheering crowds to “pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go.” Sassoon, who survived the war, and his brilliant protégé Wilfred Owen, who did not, figure importantly in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. And the continuing hold the doomed literary youth of that generation have on British writers’ imagination directs Alan Hollinghurst’s 2011 novel The Stranger’s Child, whose plot hinges on a poem by a fictional gifted victim of the war.
Among the patients treated for shell shock—what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder—at Scotland’s Craiglockhart military hospital was Wilfred Owen (pictured; 1893–1918), not only the greatest of Britain’s World War I poets but an inventor, in poems like “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” of modern English poetry. The therapy he received at Craiglockhart made Owen well enough to return to the front, which he did in 1918. (He was killed just a week before the November armistice.) But what gave Owen the courage of his own poetic voice was the friendship he developed, while at the hospital, with poet Siegfried Sassoon, who urged the younger Owen to write about the war (which until then he had not). Unlike Craiglockhart’s other patients, Sassoon was not suffering from shell shock; an officer who had served valiantly in France, he was remanded there as “unfit for service” after issuing a public declaration, in 1917, stating his opposition to the war’s continuation. The story of how Sassoon, shepherded by psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers, decides to return to battle—though without relinquishing his antiwar stand—is a main plotline of Pat Barker’s Regeneration.
Pat Barker has a remarkable talent for detailing war’s impact on every aspect of human life—its power to change what people do and who they are. In her Regeneration trilogy, many main characters are fighting men or others professionally connected to the military. In her second, as yet unnamed World War I series, the first volume of which, Life Class, was released in 2008, Barker focuses on a different coterie—students at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, who, willingly or not, are dragged into the war’s vortex. Playing a role similar to Dr. W.H.R. Rivers in the Regeneration novels—and, like Rivers, a historical person—is Henry Tonks, an artist-surgeon who taught anatomy and life drawing at Slade. Tonks’s contribution to the war effort—foregrounded in the new trilogy’s second installment, Toby’s Room—was unusual: Working with plastic surgeons at London-area military hospitals, he made pastel drawings documenting the severe facial injuries some horribly unlucky soldiers suffered. In the Regeneration books, Barker investigates the psychic toll of war; in the new trilogy, she also directs attention to the grotesque physical maiming modern weaponry could cause—and to the heroism of those who sought to repair those wounds.
In sketching disfigured World War I vets, artist-surgeon Henry Tonks (a central character in Toby’s Room) participated in a humanitarian endeavor—aiding plastic surgeons in attempts to reconstruct soldiers’ blasted faces. Tonks’s pictures are hard to look at but not macabre. By contrast, pictures of mutilated former soldiers that German expressionist artist Otto Dix made after the war—especially his painting The Skat Players (1920)—straddle the border between the macabre and the cruel. Skat Players is an abominable image: Three war cripples perch at a table, playing cards. Each is missing multiple body parts. One holds his cards with an upraised foot; another has no body at all below the waist. Their faces are hideously scarred, and prostheses—peg legs, mechanical hands, hinged false metal jaws, a snakelike hearing instrument—abound. Dix’s purposes in creating such a picture are difficult to untangle. It’s partly an antiwar polemic, but it is also perversely comic. The artist’s scathing vision of humanity extended to all his subjects, and the effect of Skat Players differs in degree but not in kind from the twisted effect any Dix portrait—whether of a prostitute, a businessman, an entertainer or himself—has on the viewer.
To envision World War I is to see the trenches: dug-out fortifications that, at the war’s height, meandered along the western front all the way from the Swiss border to the coast of Belgium. Most books, films and TV programs about the Great War—from Pat Barker’s novels to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) to episodes of PBS’s Downton Abbey—spend some time in the trenches because that’s where the action was. And also the inaction, for trench warfare was marked by long periods of stalemate in which neither side could move effectively against the other. Infantry attacks across no-man’s-land—the wasted, cratered zone between opposing trenches, often just a few hundred yards wide—were usually suicidal, but that didn’t mean such attacks weren’t ordered, at catastrophic cost. Hunkering down behind the trenches’ parapets hardly guaranteed safety: It’s estimated that 10 percent of the men who engaged in trench warfare during WWI died, and untold thousands on both sides suffered debilitating injuries from artillery and machine-gun fire, hand grenades and poison gas. The trenches provide the all-too-familiar mise-en-scène of the war, but really imagining the ever-present fear, claustrophobia and muddy discomfort felt by those inside them seems impossible.
Visual artists from both sides of World War I recorded life and death in the trenches. Among the Allies, British modernist painter Paul Nash, who as a soldier was injured in a trench in 1917, returned to the front lines as an official artist during the last part of the war, producing a series of grimy-hued oil paintings that convey with remarkable intensity the nightmarish landscape of the trench battlefields. Another commissioned war artist was American realist John Singer Sargent, who visited the front in 1918 (with Slade School instructor Henry Tonks), making many watercolor sketches of fighting men and ultimately creating one of the truly magnificent works to emerge from the war: a vast (seven-by-20 feet) canvas titled Gassed (1919), showing a procession of gas-blinded soldiers making their way across ground littered with the dead and wounded. None of these works, however, has the visceral impact of German expressionist Otto Dix’s many depictions, in various media, of the trenches’ horror. Unfortunately, what may have been Dix’s greatest war-themed work, The Trench (1920–23)—a painting so brutal one contemporary critic said it “makes you puke”—is presumed lost, probably destroyed by the Nazis during their campaign against “degenerate” art.
In the development of modern warfare, World War I was transitional. It was the first conflict to employ airplanes in combat and the last major war to put great numbers of horses to military use—first in cavalry units but later, when it became woefully apparent that cavalry charges were impotent against machine-gun and artillery fire, mostly as beasts of burden.
Millions of horses served in the war, none voluntarily. British writer Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel War Horse is the to-hell-and-back tale of one conscripted animal, a red-bay colt from Devon named Joey, whose story is told from the creature’s viewpoint. Playwright Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation opened in London in 2007 (transferring to the West End in 2009 and Broadway in 2011) in a magical, critically lauded production featuring life-size puppets created and operated by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Director Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film version, epic in scope, doesn’t skimp on the treacle but also reveals the tortures to which WWI’s horses were subjected. Especially awful—and thrilling—to watch is a sequence, near the movie’s end, in which Joey flees his German captors across the hazardous territory, thick with barbed wire, of no-man’s-land.