Listening and the war poets

An important discovery

Peter Hudson looks at the work of Dr. William Rivers at Craiglockhart hospital during the First World War, and  considers its impact on the development of an alternative and very powerful form of therapy.

World War 1 commemorations, 2014 – 2018


In this time of World War 1 anniversaries we have seen poppies by the million. In 2014 there were 888,246 of them at the great memorial at The Tower of London in the UK, each one representing a fallen British and Commonwealth soldier.  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

hydrae28093february-1918 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 Hospital.  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. Meanwhile, to learn more about the impact of the Craiglockhart Hospital on the history of the treatment of mental illness, see an excellent BBC iWonder website which hosts a superb discussion resource for students of Owen, Sassoon and the History of Medicine.


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.



For more about Peter’s work, see 

Peter Hudson


wilfred-owen (1)

Wilfred Owen


[1] Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen

[2] Counter Attack, Siegfried Sassoon

[3] Suicide in the Trenches, Siegfried Sassoon


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