Finding World War I: Fact, Fiction, and Truth in Pat Barker’s “Regeneration Trilogy”


We are living moment by moment through the centennial of the war that neither ended all wars nor made the world safe for democracy–catchphrases so cheap and aims so lofty that even as the armistice was being signed on November 11, 1918, cynics had taken them up in sardonic parody. In September 1916, a century ago, the bloody battles of Verdun and the Somme continued on the Western Front. Specifically, September 25, a hundred years ago today, saw Lesboeufs and Morval captured; Combles hemmed in by Allies; French progress at Rancourt, Le Priez Farm and Fregicourt; Zeppelin raid by seven airships on England, casualties, 43 killed, 31 injured.

We don’t know these battles, are scarcely aware that over a million British, French, and German boys and men perished in them during that one year alone. Of course, these casualties took place on foreign soil, and the United States didn’t even enter the war until the spring of the following year. We also have other excuses: Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima, the Tonkin Gulf, the World Trade Center. I am reminded of the gut-wrenching opening of Lisa Peterson’s play An Iliad: “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”

However, to ignore the anniversary of World War I is to deny its undeniable legacies and the banality with which we recite them: chemical warfare, trench warfare, shell shock, and the machines of war–tanks and submarines and airplanes. The atrocities of that war made it easy for the Western world to accept the meaninglessness inherent in Freudian psychoanalysis and Einsteinian relativity. The horrors in the trenches likewise spawned the Lost Generation and “The Wasteland” and Dr. T. J. Eckleberg.

Of course, they also gave us Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both central characters in Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995), Pat Barker’s three novels that not only portray starkly the brutality of that war, but also remind us that we live every day in its shadow. The 1997 film version of the first novel inspired me to read the entire trilogy as part of my fledging plan to use the centennial of the war as the theme of my class in writing across the curriculum. I finished the last book yesterday. It took me more than an hour to read the last twenty pages because I knew the ending–we all know that Wilfred Owen died in battle exactly one week before the end of the war–and I couldn’t bear for it to happen.

Just as The Ghost Road ends, Regeneration begins with verifiable facts from the annals of history.  The first page of the novel comprises the full text of Sassoon’s “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration,” read in the House of Commons on July 30, 1917, and published in the London Times the following day. As an alternative to court-martial, Sassoon was transferred to Craiglockhart War Hospital and the care of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers; so begins the trilogy.  Throughout, the people, events, and documents–the verifiable facts of history–blend seamlessly into the world of fiction to produce a tour de force that tells the Truth of war with a capital T.


The first novel takes place at Craiglockhart and centers primarily on the character of Dr. Rivers and his compassionate “talking treatment” for shell shock. His patients include the emaciated Burns, who landed face first into the gas-filled abdomen of a dead German soldier and is unable to eat; Anderson, the surgeon who can no longer bear the sight of blood; Willard, who suffers from hysterical paralysis–not, as he fears, because he doesn’t want to go back, but because he doesn’t want to run away; and Billy Prior, mute since holding the eyeball of a fallen comrade and asking what he should do with “this gobstopper.”

A gobstopper is a jawbreaker–one of the many things I learned as I read these books. I found that I needed both dictionary and Google at the ready in order to appreciate fully not only actions of the novels themselves, but also their historicity. I learned about Noel Pemberton Billing, “The Cult of the Clitoris,” and the Black Book supposedly used for blackmail by the German high command, containing the names of 47,000 homosexual men and women at the upper levels of British society. I learned about Lewis Yealland and his foolproof if inhumane electroshock cure for shell shock. I learned that the skin of the women who worked in the munitions factories–and their unborn children–turned yellow because of exposure to the nitric acid in TNT, giving them the sobriquet “canary girls.” I learned about the anthropological work of W. H. R. Rivers and Arthur Maurice Hocart on the Melanesian island of Eddystone. And I learned about Henry Head’s experiments in nerve regeneration, which, significantly, revealed that regeneration is never complete.

The proliferation of historical detail–including even multiple versions of “Anthem for Doomed Youth” as Sassoon helps Owen to revise his poem–has inspired much critical attention to the novel in terms of metatext and metafiction and intertextuality. However, these discussions of literary theory obscure the value of Barker’s novels in terms of both history and literature. As always, I prefer to read and discuss fiction for its own sake and take its lessons for living as they come.

Regeneration ends with Sassoon’s medical boards, discharging him to active duty in November 1917, and with Rivers’s decision to accept a post at he National Hospital in London. Its themes include not only the psychological traumas of total war, but also the nature of madness itself and the ideologies of nationalism and masculinity.

While the second volume contains historical material as well, The Eye in the Door is, by contrast, more traditionally fictional. Billy Prior is the main character, released from Craiglockhart to permanent home service at the end of the previous novel. The fugue states experienced as Billy loses time and fears that he has become Jekyll and Hyde allow the novel to explore other dualisms brought up by the war: militarism and pacifism, heterosexual and homosexual love, working class and gentleman, Geordie and proper English.

The Ghost Road, the final installment in the trilogy, won the Booker Prize in 1995. Its theme, more than that of the other books, is war–not only between nations and men, but within the self as well. As the principals return to the front, Rivers grapples with the roots of his own stammering and his loss of visual memory. He also reminisces about his time with the Melanesian natives and his observations of the “listlessness and lethargy” of their lives after the British banned headhunting: “This was a people perishing from the absence of war.” At the end of the novel, the colonial destruction of the Melanesian cult of the dead stands in silent but stark contrast to the senseless killings by civilized societies going on in the trenches of Europe.

On November 2, Billy writes his last letter to Dr. Rivers from the Sambre-Oise Canal.The following day, he makes the last entry in his journal; first-person narrators, he reasons, can never die.

Both book and film end before the armistice, with the implicit message that war never ends at all. The movie ends with Rivers reading a poem by Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action on November 4 at the Sambre-Oise Canal. Because Wilfred Owen’s poems have enabled me to understand World War I more than any piece of history or fiction or literature–save perhaps Pat Barker’s trilogy–I, too, will end with that poem:

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
By Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

W. H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart Hospital

W. H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart Hospital

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

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5 Responses to Finding World War I: Fact, Fiction, and Truth in Pat Barker’s “Regeneration Trilogy”

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