Shell shocked

Listening and the War Poets

With the 101st anniversary of the November 11th Armistice at the end of the Great War approaching, Peter Hudson looks at the work of Dr. William Rivers and his radical treatment of ‘shell shock’

World War 1 commemorations, 2014 – 2018

In November 2014  888,246 ceramic poppies were installed by the artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper in the moat of The Tower of London in the UK, each one representing a fallen British and Commonwealth soldier during ‘The Great War’ of 1914 – 18.  One was for Wilfred Owen whose poems graphically describe some of the real horrors of war: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs bitter as the cud of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues” [1]

Siegfried Sassoon was another war poet of WW1 although there would have been no poppy for him at the Tower as he lived on until the 1960s.  He too wrote of the atrocities experienced in the trenches: “The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs, high-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps and trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud” [2]

Talking about the war

Anybody who knew anybody who came back from WW1 trenches would tell you that they would not talk about it; indeed in another poem Sassoon alludes to this universal tenet of soldierly faith: “In winter trenches, cowed and glum, with crumps and lice and lack of rum, he put a bullet through his brain. No one spoke of him again.” [3]

Pioneering work at Craiglockhart Hospital

During the war both Owen and Sassoon were sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, suffering from neurasthenia or ‘shell shock’; what perhaps today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.

William Rivers was a pioneering psychiatrist at Craiglockhart.  He spent many hours listening to both Sassoon and Owen with the then radical aim of getting them to open up about the horrors they had witnessed.  He also encouraged them to publish their poems in an in-house magazine, The Hydra.

The impact of listening

So what effect did Rivers have on people? In the words of Sir Frederic Bartlett,

“It was a sort of power of getting into another man’s life and treating it as if it were his own. And yet all the time he made you feel that your life was your own to guide, and above everything else that you could if you cared make something important out of it.”

This approach was of course to become profoundly important for future generations who would benefit from what was to become modern counselling techniques.

Listening and war poetry

So would the War Poets ever have written their poems without Dr Rivers’ cathartic listening? Quite possibly not.

Peter Hudson

Peter is a consultant with Consilium Education, who specialises in developing teacher listening skills and supporting school counsellors.  He is a founder of the Motivated Learning Trust.


Learn more about Rivers and The Hydra in this BBC article reporting the recovery of three lost copies of the magazine:



FEATURE IMAGE: Steppenwolf1979 – Pixabay

Support Images: bmewett – Pixabay, Mattredding – Pixabay



[1] Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen

[2] Counter Attack, Siegfried Sassoon

[3] Suicide in the Trenches, Siegfried Sassoon