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A Terrible State of Nerves

In response to:

Sassoon's War from the July 11, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

I was particularly interested to read your correspondence about Siegfried Sassoon [NYR, July 11], since I have just completed a critical biography relating to the subject: Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet.

I find myself somewhere between C.A. Schneck and Denis Donoghue in their debate. “Being ill” and “suffering from shell-shock” are two different states and, whilst I agree with C.A. Schneck’s implication that Sassoon was not suffering from shell-shock, I also agree with Denis Donoghue that, to some extent, he fell into “a terrible state of mind and nerves” after the carnage of the Somme in summer 1916. However, he was posted home in July (not August, as Donoghue claims) not because of his nerves but because of trench fever.

Nor do I agree with Donoghue that the War Office sent him to Craiglockhart because it was “the decent thing to do.” The authorities were terrified of the publicity which would almost certainly have resulted from court-martialling an officer of known valor (Sassoon was becoming famous as a poet and had won the M.C.) and sending him to a shell-shock hospital was a damage-limitation exercise, not a kindness. Dr. Rivers, who was not on the Medical Board which interviewed Sassoon at Liverpool in late July 1917, would have had nothing whatsoever to do with the decision. And when he did begin to “treat” Sassoon, it was not for shell-shock (of which Sassoon had few, if any symptoms) but for what he considered a war-neurosis. His case notes make this quite clear. It was Rivers, through what some would regard as emotional blackmail, who, by playing on Sassoon’s guilts about “abandoning” his men, persuaded him to agree to go back to active service. He was unable to get him sent to France, as Sassoon had stipulated, but to the relatively safe Palestinian Front. But as Sassoon himself stated in various extant manuscripts, his agreeing to go back did not mean that he had changed his mind about the futility and wrongness of the war as it was being waged. In this he remained adamant. (Dr.) Jean Moorcroft Wilson
London, England

Denis Donoghue replies:

Posting Sassoon to Craiglockhart was, I think, both a “damage-limitation exercise” and an act of kindness. The two are compatible. Of course I never implied that Rivers had anything to do with the decision. My point was that, when Sassoon arrived at Craiglockhart, Rivers did not take part in any pretense that he was ill. He was ill, and Rivers treated him accordingly. Whether we call the illness “trench fever” or “a war-neurosis” or “a terrible state of mind and nerves” is not an issue I’m prepared to dispute. Dr. Wilson is closer to the documents than I am. I look forward to reading her book.

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