Regeneration by Pat Barker

This book is set during WW1 in England. It makes use of the factual poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves. Fact and fiction are mixed together in this story about the psychological damage done to soldiers during the First World War. The issue of opposing the war is also discussed, since Siegfried Sassoon, one of the most famous of WW1 poets, opposed the war publicly. Those injured soldiers who opposed the merciless killing were equated with cowards and shirkers. The only apparent option for them was to return to the front in France to demonstrate they were not afraid.

When Siegfried Sassoon was wounded in France he returned to England. Wilfred Owen felt he should replace Sassoon at the front so he could report independently on what conditions were like. He returned to France and was killed a week before the end of the war. His mother received the dreaded telegram the same day the church bells were ringing out proclaiming the end of the war.

In the novel Regeneration, Rivers is a psychiatrist who treats men who were damaged psychologically by their experiences in the war. The men were often injured mentally as well as physically, yet they felt the need to return to the war rather than stay in England branded as cowards.

The novel delves into war-poetry, politics, and the experiences of front-line soldiers. The wartime effort of the women who worked in munitions factories is also part of the story.

There is a section of the story, where Rivers watches another psychiatrist use a system of electric shocks to make a mute soldier talk again. It is a brutal scene: bullying and electrical torture, but in a few hours, the soldier regained his voice. Was torture the right thing to do? How long would the soldier have remained mute if treated by some other method?

The novel is somewhat grim, but then again, it was not a happy time in France. Soldiers were killed by the thousands when instructed to advance into barbed wire, mud, and machine gun fire. The general population in England saw the war differently to what the soldiers did; they saw soldiers killing the enemy, winning battles, medals, and glory for their nation. They did not notice the soldiers with amputated limbs, suffering from poisonous gas, or shell-shock.

It was quite a meaningless war, that should have be solved by diplomats not unhinged generals.
This is an interesting novel, one that looks on the darker side of war.

Regeneration is the first book in the trilogy. Published in 1991.
Robert Graves’ autobiographical book, Goodbye to All That, gives one of the best descriptions of the trench warfare during World War One.

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