Category Archives: Hydra

‘The Poetry of War: Portraits of the Patients at Craiglockhart’ – 24 August 2014 (article two)


‘Many of us who came to the Hydro slightly ill are now getting dangerously well’, observed Siegfried Sassoon Wilfred Owen, writing in the Hydra magazine on 1 September 1917. The opening line of Sassoon’s Owen’s editorial for the Craiglockhart Military Hospital publication explicitly captures the precarious situation convalescing soldiers found themselves in. Recovery was a pyrrhic victory as a return to health meant a return to the front line.

On Sunday evening at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, a full audience attended Edinburgh Napier University’s ‘The Poetry of War, Portraits of the Patients of Craiglockhart’ event to explore the lives of returning soldiers and officers scarred from the theatres of war. The curator of the war poets collection at Craiglockhart campus, Catherine Walker and historian Allan Burnett, took to the stage to share their expert knowledge of this period with the assembled audience. They were also joined by guest speakers who read extracts from the literary works of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Walker recounted the history of the Craiglockhart building noting prior to its incarnation as a military hospital in 1916, it was in fact a hydropathic spa for the ‘worried wealthy’. In later life, the building was also a convent of the Scared Heart for the purposes of teaching and training. However, the central focus of the event was to explore the activities that occurred when the building was used as a military hospital and the daily environment of its patients.

The birth of the Hydra magazine can be seen as a product of this environment. The aforementioned Hydra was published in 1917 and used as communication channel for recovering patients to keep up-to-date with all the activities that were occurring in and around Craiglockhart. This ranged from sporting victories and competitions in tennis, bowls or croquet as well as keeping patients abreast of news from the debating club. Moreover, the publication reached out to the wider community (friends and families of patients) to allow them to participate and remain informed of events at the hospital.

The medical fraternity of Craiglockhart, Dr William Halls Halse Rivers and Dr Arthur Brock, were influential in creating the conditions that allowed the Hydra magazine to emerge. Rivers, who treated Sassoon, adopted a ‘talking cures’ approach. Meanwhile Brock employed ‘ergo therapy’, a working cure in which he attempted to reconnect the damaged man back to the environment he would know and recognise. The two methods complemented one another. In the case of Owen and Sassoon, the creation of a hospital magazine allowed the men to engage in creative writing as a cathartic therapy; whilst it also reconnected the men as wordsmiths to an activity they were familiar with and practiced. The publication allowed the men to reflect upon and articulate their experiences of the First World War to produce some of their most notable poems and become a defining voice in twentieth-century war poetry.

Burnett attempted to give wider background to events occurring on the western front in 1916 but mainly spoke about the effect of war at a regional level, specifically the bombing of the Grassmarket in Edinburgh on 2 April 1916. While Burnett may have side-stepped the original question asked by the chairperson with regards to the international developments, he nonetheless painted a vivid picture of the consequences of war upon Scotland and her people both at home and at the front. Against this context the riches of the archived collection at Craiglockhart are further underscored. The manuscript material, particularly the Hydra magazine, captures a snapshot of the impact of the Great War on the Edinburgh community. If you wish to visit the war poets collection details can be found by clicking this link:


The following photo shows David Jarman and Jane Ali-Knight of Edinburgh Napier University, with Elspeth Frew, in attendance for the event. Article contributed by Aisling MacQuarrie.


‘The Poetry of War: Portraits of the Patients at Craiglockhart’ – 24 August 2014

As the Edinburgh International Book Festival drew to a close for 2014, one of the highlights of Edinburgh Napier’s involvement took place on a sunny Sunday evening. Having heard mention of the Craiglockhart War Hospital, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in various talks during the Festival, it was fitting that the Edinburgh Napier University sponsored event brought these themes to the fore. A packed audience gathered to hear about life at the hospital, the treatments and practices of the institution and the artefacts and archives which remain. On the stage was Alan Burnett (author of The Story of Scotland) and, archivist at Craiglockhart, Catherine Walker.

IMG_3418Over the course of an hour the packed audience was introduced to the history of Craiglockhart (first a hydro hotel, later a convent), the medical approaches of Dr Rivers and Dr Brock and some other connections between Edinburgh and the Great War. This latter point touched on Edinburgh-born Earl Haig, and the aerial bombardment of the Grassmarket that was news to many in the tent!

At the heart of the event were copies of Hydra, ‘The Magazine of Craiglockhart War Hospital’. Two copies of the magazine were recently brought to Craiglockhart and added to the university’s collection. Catherine W explained how the magazine was both a way to share news and a forum for discussion. Topics of the day ranged from the activities of the debating and sports societies, to the progress of women’s suffrage. There was an element of self-censorship at times, avoiding anything too controversial or revolutionary.

As was stated by Alan B, the commentary and poetry that found its way into these pages has ‘helped shape our image of the war’. He was keen to stress that it was written from officers’ perspectives, that Craiglockhart was a place for the select few, who were being given some of the best care available. Yet these were also men who formed part of the office class, contending with the stress of having to live up to the expectations that accompanied their role in life and the armed services. The concern for some was that they risked becoming ‘dangerously well’ and thus were flirting with being sent back to the front.

The Book Festival event was further illuminated by several readings, taken from the magazines and performed by young actors. To an extent they and other such references brought home the contrast between the relatively mundanity of Edinburgh life and the experiences of war that had affected these men so. We also heard a nurse’s poem, reflecting her lived experience of growing up at this time and defying standard expectations of her place in society. In line with many of the events to have taken place in the Book Festival’s ‘Words and War‘ this exploration of the Poetry of War was a window onto a tumultuous time for the men and women of Edinburgh, Scotland and Europe.

Ahead of the main event, as part of a reception hosted by the Principal of Edinburgh Napier University, a small audience was privileged to hear a few melodies played out on the ‘Wilfred Owen Violin‘. This instrument has recently been made from freshly sourced timber, a sycamore still growing in the grounds of Craiglockhart. It is a unique contribution to the history of the building and our modern links to the staff and patients of the hospital, and will hopefully be heard many times again at Craiglockhart and elsewhere.

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