Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Craiglockhart War Hospital of Edinburgh

Georgina Weatherdon
SHO NHS Lothian hospitals


 Craiglockhart War Hospital
Photography by Brideshead

Was it the ghost of autumn in that smell
Of underground, or God’s blank heart grown kind,
That sent a happy dream to him in hell?—
Where men are crushed like clods, and crawl to find
Some crater for their wretchedness; who lie
In outcast immolation, doomed to die
Far from clean things or any hope of cheer1

Siegfried Sassoon wrote these desolate words in his poem “Break of Day” published in The Hydra magazine of Craiglockhart Hospital. He had been admitted to the Edinburgh military hospital in 1917 following his “Soldier’s Declaration” in which he condemned the “Scarlet Majors”2 for deliberately prolonging the war. He was deemed insane and treated for shellshock along with other officers at Craiglockhart Hospital. Originally Craiglockhart Hydro (opened in 1880) provided hydro and electrotherapy for neurasthenic disorders, but the hospital was requisitioned by the War Office to treat shellshocked officers between 1916 and 1919. It attempted to offer sanctuary, a “happy dream,” from the hell of the World War I trenches.

“Shellshock” was the name given to the psychological breakdown following horrific experience in the trenches. Introduced by Charles S. Myers in a Lancet article in 1915,3 shellshock encompassed a diverse array of disorders—hysterical paralysis, blindness and mutism, insomnia and nightmares, anxiety, amnesia, and psychosis. Initially thought to be the result of proximity to a shell explosion and the subsequent forces of compression and decompression causing microscopic cerebral haemorrhages,4 this was shortly superseded by the psychiatric theory of extreme emotional disturbance and psychic repression of traumatic experience.5 Craiglockhart Hospital was opened to deal with this epidemic, but many physicians refused to recognise its existence, believing shellshocked soldiers to be “lead swingers” and malingerers.6

It was at Craiglockhart that Siegfried Sassoon met his fellow war poet Wilfred Owen. Although Owen was far from optimistic about his time at Craiglockhart, writing that “there is nothing very attractive about the place, it is a decayed hydro, far too full of officers,”7 he was inspired by one of these officers, Sassoon, to pursue his poetic art. Indeed” Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth” were composed during Sassoon’s admission. He also edited six issues of The Hydra magazine during his stay, encouraged by his psychiatrist Dr Arthur J Brock who advocated “ergotherapy” or the occupational cure for his patients.

The most eminent psychiatrist at Craiglockhart, however, was W.H.R. Rivers. Before World War I he specialized in anthropology and neurology, and was enlisted by the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1916. During his time at Craiglockhart, Rivers developed his psychoanalytic “talking cure,” a Freudian notion involving exposure of repressed emotion and dream interpretation. He was Siegfried Sassoon’s psychiatrist, and a firm friendship developed between the two, as illustrated in Sassoon’s semi-autobiographical work Sherston’s Progress. Rivers was Sassoon’s “father-confessor.”8 Elements of Rivers’ techniques still persist in the management of post combat disorders such as PTSD, where cognitive behavioural and psychodynamic therapy are commonly used.

Regeneration9 written by the renowned author Pat Barker also depicts the relationship between Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as following other real life characters such as Wilfred Owen and the controversial psychiatrist Dr Lewis Yealland. Barker also probes life in Craiglockhart Hospital through fictional characters suffering from diverse manifestations of shellshock—for example, Burns, who tastes the putrid flesh of a German corpse each time he attempts to eat; Billy Prior, who is mute; and Willard, who suffers from paralysis. Some of these characters, such as Billy Prior, do recover, and even the real life Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon returned to the Front. In fact of the 1801 officers treated at Craiglockhart Hospital, 758 returned to active service.10 According to Sassoon, the medical staff tried to bring a cheerful outlook to the hospital and the number of those recovering did seem to outnumber the tortured, shellshocked men.11 Perhaps Craiglockhart convalescence was the success reported in The Hydra: “Many of us who came to the Hydro slightly ill are now getting dangerously well.”12

However this statement alludes to the danger of recovery, namely that one would be sent back to the massacre at the Front, as speaking out against the war could lead to a court martial. Of the officers remaining, 735 were discharged as medically unfit, 167 were given home service and light duties, and 141 required specialist medical treatment at other hospitals,13 which can hardly count as success. The accuracy of the number returning to active service abroad is also debatable since Sassoon himself stated that this was a rare occurrence.14 Even the “cured” would never truly be so: “We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think … we are objects of horror.”15 This conclusion from the fictional Regeneration trilogy is mirrored by the thoughts of real inpatients “The self respect we ever had, we’ve lost—all people think us mad.”16 This was most apparent at night, when “the place was full of men whose slumbers were morbid and terrifying” and were beyond the salvation of any doctor.17

Yet even if the patients were haunted at night, Craiglockhart Hospital was a refuge from the horrors of war. A multitude of activities was available, from the camera club to golf (a particular favourite of Sassoon’s), to tennis and crocquet, to regular concerts, and of course to The Hydra magazine, which provided the platform for the expression of emotions whether frivolous or more profound. In addition the grounds were extensive and offered stunning views of the Pentland Hills. This setting, along with the encouragement of group activities and the innovative “talking cure” and “ergotherapy,” is a remarkable model for the current inpatient management of post-combat disorders and of psychiatric conditions in general. Since the First World War, Craiglockhart has been a convent, a Catholic teacher training college, and is currently an Edinburgh Napier University campus. Yet its therapeutic legacy continues.



  1. Siegfried Sassoon, Break of Day, In: The Hydra (microform): The magazine of Craiglockhart War Hospital, No. 2, (Edinburgh: Pillans and Wilson 1917)
  2. Siegfried Sassoon, Base Details, In: The Hydra (as above)
  3. Charles S. Myers, ‘A contribution to the study of shell shock: being an account of three cases of loss of memory, vision, smell and taste admitted into the Duchess of Westminster’s War Hospital, Le Touquet’, The Lancet vol. 1 (1915)
  4. Myers (1915)
  5. Charles S. Myers, ‘Contributions to the Study of Shell Shock: Being an account of certain cases treated by hypnosis’, The Lancet vol.1 (1916) ; Charles S. Myers, Shell shock in France: 1914-18. Based on a war diary kept by C.S.Myers, (Cambridge: University Press 1940), p.25
  6. Thomas Webb ‘Dottyville’—Craiglockhart War Hospital and shell-shock treatment in the First World War’, J R Soc Med 99 (2006): 342–346
  7. A letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother Susan Owen from Craiglockhart War Hospital 26/06/17
  8. Siegfried Sassoon, Sherston’s Progress, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd 1936)
  9. Pat Barker, Regeneration Trilogy (including Regeneration London Penguin Books 1992, The Eye in the Door London Viking 1993, The Ghost Road London Penguin Books 1996)
  10. The War Poets Collection, Edinburgh Napier University, Craiglockhart Campus, visited 04/11/14
  11. Sassoon, Sherston’s Progress, p.87
  12. The War Poets Collection
  13. Ibid
  14. Sassoon, Sherston’s Progress, p.51
  15. Barker, The Ghost Road, p.200
  16. Stared At, In: The Hydra: The magazine of Craiglockhart War Hospital, no.8, 1918
  17. Sassoon, Sherston’s Progress, p.87





Winter 2015  |  Sections  |  Hospitals of Note

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