The greatest of war protests that was forged in Edinburgh
Plus: Nearly 600 city streets to be targeted for pavement parking enforcement
Every year at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the nation stops, silent, for just two minutes. It has been this way for more than a century, since Armistice was declared at 11am on 11 November, 1918 when the thundering guns finally fell silent across the pock-scarred and bloody battlefields of Europe as the Great War ended.
An estimated 9 million soldiers had died, and anything up to 14-15 million civilians perished through starvation, disease, and massacre. In just one day, 1 July, 1916, Britain suffered its heaviest day of loss when more than 57,400 casualties were recorded at the Somme. Mechanised warfare had arrived, reaping the grimmest of harvests.
So this brief, 120-second fragment of quiet is not a moment for cheap jingoism, or for celebration, or for politics. It is a time to remember the fallen, paying our soundless tribute. It is important, because surely it is in taking this moment, listening to their voices and their testimony, that we are most likely to learn.
And listen we should, to two of the most remarkable, heroic and persuasive voices raised against the utter failure that war must inevitably represent, who met in Edinburgh in the summer of 1917, at a place they called “Dottyville.”
Craiglockhart War Hospital, now part of the campus of Edinburgh Napier University, had been established the previous year to provide psychiatric treatment for officers who suffered from the psychological effects of the war, then most often known as shell-shock.
In August 1917, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, arguably the greatest of the war poets, met there, became close, and created their finest work. It was Sassoon who gave the place its nickname. Much of their work was published in the hospital’s own magazine, The Hydra.
Both men won the Military Cross for gallantry in action during the fighting, leading their men with courage and, in the case of Sassoon, risking his life to rescue wounded comrades. Their courage and service did not blind them to the reality of war. Both wrote the most excoriating and graphic accounts of their war experiences, giving powerful witness to the horror and brutality faced by the youthful called to pay the price when the politicians and diplomats fall short.
There is an irony of sorts in that they so excelled in their collaboration in Edinburgh, the birthplace of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. His relentless pursuit of victory through attrition on the Western Front was to prove controversial to this day, due to the enormity of the lives lost. While his tactics were later castigated by some as brutal and outdated, he cared for the men – after the war he would campaign stubbornly for their welfare, taking on the establishment and winning, helping to found what became the Royal British Legion and establishing the Earl Haig Fund (Scotland) which latterly became PoppyScotland along with its counterparts south of the border.
Sassoon had little time for Haig, as he laid bare in his poem The General:
“Good morning, good morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he spoke to are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
They came to Craiglockhart for different reasons. Owen was injured twice on the Western Front, his second injury suffered in April affected him through shell-shock as well as physically. Sassoon, on the other hand, was a celebrated war hero. Armed with grenades he scattered 60 German soldiers and captured a machine gun earlier in the war, before, according to his close friend and fellow poet Robert Graves, sitting down in the German trench and opening a book of poems.
His Military Cross was awarded in 1916, when he spent one and a half hours under heavy enemy fire collecting and bringing in the wounded and dead. Every one of his men, to whom he was known as “Mad Jack,” was recovered. He became increasingly disillusioned with the war and was an outspoken critic. His time at Craiglockhart came after he refused to return to active service following a period of recuperation, and instead his “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration” was read to the House of Commons by a sympathetic MP and carried in The Times.
“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.”
“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”
“On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.”
Lt Siegfried Sassoon, 3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers, July 1917
Rather than make such a figure face a court martial, the authorities declared him unfit for duty and sent him to Edinburgh for treatment.
Their time at Craiglockhart has found its way also into popular culture, most notably through Pat Barker’s brilliant 1991 novel and subsequent film, Regeneration, which focuses on the extraordinary and enlightened work being carried out by the doctors treating the men, in particular Sassoon and his doctor, William Rivers. The two became lifelong friends. Owen was treated, with equal compassion, by Dr John Brock.
In his fascinating collection “Owen & Sassoon: The Edinburgh Poems” Neil McLennan, a former history teacher at Tynecastle High School, reveals that his interest was piqued when he discovered that, as part of his therapy, Owen taught at the school during his time in the Capital. When the two men met, Sassoon was the published poet, as well as the decorated war hero. However, Owen’s time here also saw the first publication of his poems in the hospital magazine, The Hydra. He also published in a national magazine, The Nation, while at Craiglockhart.
McLennan said: “Sassoon’s writing at Craiglockhart focused more on his war experience than on pursuit of development of style. However, Owen was finding himself in many ways and developing his style as well as recovering from shell-shock…
“The assistance Sassoon provided during the drafting of these poems is well documented, but there were other influences at work in 1917.
“Brock’s treatment of Owen utilised his patient’s writing as a device for downloading the trauma of war onto paper. The Sentry, The Letter, Inspection, and Dulce et Decorum Est are all examples of wartime experiences, written as part of his treatment.”
Edinburgh is reflected in many of Owen’s poems, but most notably Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth, two which are widely regarded as amongst the finest war poems ever written. Both were penned during his time at Craiglockhart. Indeed, a copy of Anthem for Doomed Youth containing Sassoon’s handwritten suggested amendments remains in the Imperial War Museum, further demonstrating the strong collaboration and bond between the two.
Dulce et Decorum Est was written after suffering a gas attack in all its ghastliness, and as a counterpoint to the work of many other poets who adopted what he felt was a misleadingly pastoral and romantic approach to their commentary on the war. The final two verses graphically communicate the horror he witnessed:
“If in smothering dreams you too could
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his
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
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud.
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent
My friend, you would not tell with such
To children, ardent for some desperate
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Both men returned to active service in France. Sassoon was wounded yet again, reportedly a victim of friendly fire by a British soldier who shot him in the head after he mistook him for a German, and he spent the remainder of the war in Britain.
Sassoon had begged Owen not to return to the conflict. His pleas fell on deaf ears, as Owen also fought on in France and in October 2018 he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry, taking charge of an attack when his commander was a casualty and turning a captured machine gun on the enemy.
…At the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, as crowds celebrated with songs, tears and laughter on the streets of Britain, as church bells rang throughout the nation, a smiling David Lloyd George, Prime Minister, stood at a first-floor window in 10 Downing Street and waved to the gathered crowds.
He told them they had won “a great victory for humanity. The sons and daughters of the people of this country have done it. They have won this hour of gladness, and the whole country has done its duty.” He told them “You are well entitled to rejoice.”
He said The Great War finished at 11am. When the guns fell silent.
That very same day, in Shrewsbury in Shropshire, Susan Owen opened a telegram. As the rest of the nation noisily rejoiced, she learned that her son, Wilfred, had been killed exactly a week earlier in northern France. He was just 25 at the time of his death.
It was his friend and mentor, Sassoon, who ensured his poetry was published as a collection. Sassoon also wrote a brief foreword. He said simply that the Poems “can speak for him (Owen), backed by the authority of his experience as an infantry soldier“. His friend, he said, “pitied others, he did not pity himself.” Instead, Sassoon chose to use Owen’s own, immensely moving words, by including a draft preface found amongst his friend’s papers, which reads:
“This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, dominion or power,
“Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
“The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
“The Poetry is in the pity.
“Yet these elegies are not to this generation, this is in no sense consolatory.
“They may be to the next.
“All the poet can do today is to warn.
“That is why the poets must be truthful.
“If I thought the letter of this book would last,
“I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives Prussia, - my
ambition and those names will be content; for they will have achieved themselves
fresher fields than Flanders.”
“No mockeries now for them; no prayers
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.”
(from Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen)
Pavement parking ban to be enforced within weeks
A ban on pavement parking will be enforced in Edinburgh from January with almost 600 streets identified for special attention.
The city council is expected to be the first in the country to use new powers created by the Scottish Government to issue £100 fines - reduced to £50 for prompt payment - for parking on pavements.
Pavement parking has been long identified as causing a particular problem for many disabled people and those pushing baby buggies.
The council has carried out a survey of 5,217 streets across the Capital and identified 590 mainly residential ones where pavement parking is a particular issue.
Those streets will receive particular attention from the existing team of parking wardens contracted by the council who will enforce the new rules. The area of with the most ‘hot spot’ streets is Portobello.
There will be no grace period once enforcement begins on or near 16 January with a final date due to be confirmed later this month. There will be a public awareness campaign in advance to warn motorists.
There is an expectation that a relatively high number of fines might be handed out for the first four to six weeks until all drivers get used to the new rules.
The city’s transport convener Councillor Scott Arthur said he is keen to enforce a complete ban with no exceptions other than those stipulated by legislation.
“People will be able to apply for exemptions, but they would have to be genuinely exceptional circumstances. My hope is that there won’t be any,” he said.
Delivery drivers will be allowed to park on pavements provided that there is no alternative space available to them and they leave at least 1.5 metres of pavement clear for pedestrians.
The impact of the enforcement will be monitored by the local authority, particularly any displacement of parked cars from the 590 target streets, with a view to quickly introducing double yellow lines to tackle any knock-on problems.
The crackdown appears to be popular support with 68% of residents supporting the move according to research carried out for the local authority.
The council has worked with the Guide Dogs charity and the active travel charity Living Streets Scotland to draw up its plans.
Stuart Hay, director of Living Streets Scotland, said: “Edinburgh is taking the right approach to the enforcement of pavement parking, recognising that footways are for people, not parking spaces for cars.”