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Regeneration | Context


Britain in World War I

The characters in this book are soldiers or officers who fought in the British armed forces in World War I (1914–18). The book explores how the experience of war has affected them both physically and psychologically.

After a long period of relative peace during the 19th century, Europe maintained an effective balance of power among the major countries until about 1907, when Germany began flexing its military muscle by building up its armed forces and gearing its economy increasingly toward the military. To counter the rise of German power, Britain joined France and Russia in an alliance called the Triple Entente, an agreement for mutual support but not necessarily military defense if one of the Entente nations were attacked by Germany or another aggressor.

The event that precipitated the war was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. However, that event may be viewed as a pretext, or excuse, for prosecuting the war that followed. The actual cause of the war remains elusive and uncertain—and is still debated among historians. In her fine history of the First World War, The War That Ended Peace (2013), Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan wrote: "We also remember the Great War because it is such a puzzle. How could Europe have done this to itself and to the world? There are many possible explanations; indeed, so many that it is difficult to choose among them. For a start the arms race ... economic rivalry, trade wars, imperialism ... nationalism with its unsavory riders of hatred and contempt for others ... the demands of honor and manliness which meant not backing down or appearing weak ... The military as the noblest part of the nation and the spread of military values into civilian societies fed the assumptions that war was a necessary part of the great struggle for survival ... It was [also] Europe's and the world's tragedy in retrospect that none of the key players in 1914 were great and imaginative leaders who had the courage to stand out against the pressures building up for war." MacMillan quotes the British politician and prime minister (1916–1922) David Lloyd George (1863–1945) who said, "The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay."

On the nights of August 3–4, 1914, German forces heading to France invaded the neutral nation of Belgium. The British government intervened in accordance with the Treaty of London (1839), in which Britain promised to defend Belgium against foreign aggression. Debate raged in the British Parliament about whether to declare war on Germany for invading Belgium. But on August 4, 1914, when German troops began moving out of Belgium to attack France, Britain acted and declared war. In only a few days, France and Russia joined Britain, as the Allies, in war against Germany. Most people on both sides of the conflict believed that World War I (1914–18), the setting of the novel, would be over in a matter of months.

At the start of the war, Britain had only about 250,000 men in arms, but by the end of 1914, more than one million men had enlisted to fight in the war. By December 1915 that number grew to more than 2.5 million. In total about 5.2 million British soldiers fought in World War I. Between one and two million were fighting on the Western Front—roughly the border region between France and Germany and Belgium and Germany—at any one time during the war.

The Fighting

Regeneration describes the appalling circumstances these soldiers faced on the Western Front. Soldiers lived in tunnel-like trenches, filled with lice, rats, and mud. The enemy lived in similar trenches some short distance away. In between was an area known as "No Man's Land," filled with dead trees, dead soldiers, and craters where bombs had exploded. Some bombs fell in trenches and killed soldiers there. When the military brass gave the order, soldiers climbed out of their trenches—known as going "over the top"—and charged across No Man's Land toward enemy lines. Usually the enemy soldiers in the opposing trenches had their rifles ready and cut down the soldiers who charged directly into the line of fire. If a large enough force of charging soldiers survived No Man's Land, they might kill—by gunfire or bayonet—enemy soldiers in their trenches or force the enemy soldiers to abandon their trench and retreat. Thus a huge number of soldiers sacrificed their lives to gain, at most, a few hundred meters of territory. World War I is also notable as the first war in which poison gas, such as mustard gas and chlorine gas, was used as a deadly weapon, vastly increasing the number of casualties.

As historian Vanda Wilcox writes, "The men and women who served in the First World War endured some of the most brutal forms of warfare ever known. Millions were sent to fight away from home for months, even years at a time, and underwent a series of terrible physical and emotional experiences." Ernest Hemingway, the great American novelist and a World War I veteran, wrote: "There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity ... Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene." The characters in this book carry the scars of these horrific experiences, and the process of healing (when possible) is an important topic in the novel.


The patient-soldiers in this novel are casualties of the fighting in France during World War I. British casualties were enormous, as were casualties for most armies. July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme in France, is remembered as "the worst day in British army history," with 57,470 casualties. By the time the Battle of the Somme ended, in November 1916, the British had suffered more than 420,000 casualties. At the Battle of Passchendaele, in Belgium, between July 31 and November 6, 1917, Britain suffered about 217,000 casualties and gained very little territory. As a result "Passchendaele" became a symbol of the war's horrors and wasted lives.

By war's end, of the 8,904,467 soldiers mobilized from the British Empire, 908,371 were killed, nearly 2.1 million were injured, and about 192,000 were missing in action or taken prisoner, totaling 35.8 percent of all forces mobilized.

British Women in World War I

Before World War I between 11 and 13 percent of working-age women in England and Wales worked as domestic servants. By 1931 the number dropped to less than 8 percent. As millions of men left for the front, British women took over many of their jobs. In 1911, 33,000 women worked for the British civil service; by 1912 this number soared to 102,000.

Women, such as those in this novel, began working in munitions factories in 1915. By 1918 more than a million British women were working in such factories. Many of these women worked with the explosive TNT, which often caused toxic jaundice, a potentially fatal disease whose clearest symptom was yellow skin. An estimated 400 British women suffered from toxic jaundice during the war years; a quarter of these cases were fatal.

Women working in factories during the war were almost always paid less than the men they replaced. Some women workers went on strike for wage parity—a goal women still fight for today.

Craiglockhart War Hospital

The men portrayed in Regeneration are a tiny fraction of the more than two million who were injured and returned home to Britain with serious physical or mental traumas. Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, Scotland, was opened as a "shell shock" military hospital for treating soldiers mentally or physically scarred during the Battle of the Somme in France (1916, World War I battle fought between the British and French Empires against the German Empire). The novel is set at Craiglockhart Hospital, where soldiers suffering the psychological effects of their traumatic war experiences (then called shell shock) were treated. Shell shock is often today referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is a mental health condition that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, as often happens in combat.

The hospital's staff became famous for their approach to neuropsychiatry championed by Dr. W.H.R. Rivers—the protagonist of Regeneration. Neuropsychiatry is psychiatry that relates mental or emotional problems to disordered brain function. Physical and mental breakdowns were believed to result from severe psychological stresses, such as those experienced during war. Craiglockhart is one of the few hospitals of its type that retained records of the soldiers treated there. According to these records, of the 1,736 patients the hospital treated between October 1916 and March 1919, 735 were listed as "discharged, medically unfit." Another 89 soldiers were put on "home service"—working for the military from their home country; 141 were transferred to other medical facilities; and 758 were released and returned to combat.

Aside from Dr. Rivers's innovative and frequently effective treatment of soldiers with war neurosis, or breakdown, Craiglockhart is also known as the place where two of Britain's most gifted poets of the 20th century met and became close friends.

Sassoon and Owen

The English poets featured in the novel, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, met while both were being treated for traumatic breakdown at Craiglockhart. Both were second lieutenants in the British army when they arrived at the hospital. At the time they met, Sassoon was already fairly well known, and some of his poetry had been published. Sassoon was astute enough to recognize in Owen a brilliant poetic talent; many would come to consider Owen the greatest poet of the World War I era. Sassoon became a friend and mentor to Owen, who was somewhat awed by the rich, famous, and talented Sassoon. Owen had already read many of Sassoon's published poems, and he greatly admired Sassoon's poetic gift.

At Craiglockhart Owen became more committed to Sassoon's opposition to the war, as delineated in Sassoon's Declaration of July 1917 that he was opposed to any further fighting. Both men felt an immense responsibility for the soldiers they'd left behind in France. Both poets may well have secured a home-service recommendation from Craiglockhart and spent the rest of the war working for the military in Britain. But they wanted to help their comrades who were suffering on the front lines, so both returned to the fighting.

Sassoon survived World War I and died in 1967. Owen met a more tragic fate. He chose to return to the front after treatment at Craiglockhart. He was killed in combat in northern France on November 4, 1918, one week before the war ended and an Armistice was declared.

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