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Regeneration | Themes

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Traumas of Battle

The soldiers being treated at Craiglockhart War Hospital are suffering the physical or mental effects of the trauma they experienced at the front. The men try to bury the trauma deep within them, terrified to confront it, but it emerges in a variety of different mental and physical disabilities.

During World War I trauma was called shell shock, although some of the military brass denied shell shock existed. They insisted the physical and mental disabilities exhibited by the affected soldiers were merely signs of "cowardice." But Dr. Rivers and other psychiatrists at Craiglockhart understand that the effects of trauma, or shell shock, are real.

The novel explores how the mind and body react to traumatic experiences so horrifying they must be repressed deeply, beyond memory. No matter what type of experience caused the trauma, it manifests in different ways in different men—from mutism to stammering to bodily paralysis and recurring nightmares or hallucinations. The trauma these men suffer, which the author explores with deep compassion, is today termed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Waging War for Power

The conditions under which the soldiers fought in World War I were unimaginably horrific. Yet the powerful men who perpetuated the war were indifferent to the effects of these conditions on soldiers. Those behind the war had power over the soldiers and used to it to make sure they continued fighting, regardless of the life-destroying battlefield conditions.

The powerful pro-war factions in the government and the nation saw it as their duty to force soldiers to return, time after time, to the horrors of the front lines. Yet the soldiers themselves also felt compelled to fight by a sense of duty. Soldiers' patriotism was not of the shallow, self-interested variety—the kind motivating those in power. Rather soldiers recovering from traumatic injuries—whether physical or mental—felt it their duty to return to the trenches out of a sense of loyalty to the men still at the front. Not doing one's duty to return to battle meant another soldier might die in one's place; this produced a sense of guilt and responsibility soldiers could not ignore. Their duty and loyalty was to their comrades who continued to struggle on the battlefield, which explains why they felt it was their duty to go back to fight.

Returning to the front lines was a sacrifice for recovering or recovered soldiers. Even though they might have been allowed to remain in Britain, many, like Siegfried Sassoon, freely made the sacrifice to return to the battlefield. The soldiers' sense of solidarity and comradeship with their fellow fighters might result in a relapse of trauma-related illness or in the ultimate sacrifice—death—but they still chose to fight beside their fellows. The theme of manly love and comradeship is strongly implicit here.

Defining Manliness

The British ideal of manliness was of the "stiff upper lip" variety; it tolerated no show of emotion, for showing emotion was showing weakness. For some powerful men who perpetuated the war, the physical and mental disabilities exhibited by the soldiers in the hospital were signs not only of weakness but of shirking one's duty. These powerful men did not acknowledge that war trauma could cause such terrible disabilities in soldiers who were "real men." Soldiers of the time (1914–18), having been brought up in this emotionally repressed British society, suffered more acutely. They felt they had to suppress the emotions resulting from their trauma, so they could not express and thus release them. Some doctors, parents, and high-ranking military men reacted to afflicted soldiers with scorn or skepticism because they refused to acknowledge or deal with the emotional traumas the men were suffering from.

Soldiers were generally dissuaded from expressing overt love for the men they fought with and who were generally viewed as caring comrades. Officers especially—men like Sassoon—frequently felt love for the men they led and cared deeply about their well-being. Although in many cases this love emerged out of concern for the soldiers' lives and safety, there are in the novel instances in which it is clear this emotion sometimes involves homosexuality. Sassoon, for example, is strongly drawn to men both during and after the war, although there is no hint he is sexually engaged with the men he leads at the front. Owen, too, develops feelings for Sassoon. At this time homosexuality was a crime in Britain, so its expression had to be closely guarded.

For the most part the feelings soldiers have for each other are those of deep comradery—a sense of loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice oneself to help or save others. Feelings of comradeship were accepted, even encouraged, by British society so long as they did not evolve into an emotional or sexual attachment.

Conscience and Principle

Some of the characters in the novel are troubled by having to betray their principles in order to continue to fight in the war, Sassoon being a key example. Although he has written a Declaration denouncing the war, he struggles with how his strong anti-war principles fit in with his duty to his fellow soldiers. Sassoon wrestles with the dilemma of acting according to his principles—which would keep him out of an absurd and meaningless war—or according to his conscience—which would have him return to the front to support and care for the troops he leads.

Other characters, too, struggle to align their conscience and principles with the reality of war they must adapt to. Dr. Rivers is torn by his conscience, which tells him many men in his care should not rejoin the war, and his duty, which is to "cure" his patients so they may return to the battlefield. Rivers's principles on the prosecution of the war are confused but become clarified by the end of the book. Some other soldiers described in the novel must also decide whether to act according to their principles and conscience or according to the military rules controlling them.

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