RIVERS IN WW1 – SASSOON AND YEALLAND

Memoirs or accounts of soldiers’ time in shell-shock hospitals are rare and there are hardly any official records still available for research. The majority of those that existed seem to have perished in the same Second World War bombing raid that claimed a large percentage of the files relating to ‘Other Ranks’ . From what a person can gather, however, it appears Rivers was greatly appreciated by his patients, for his approach to both their illness and life itself: Bartlett tried to explain “ there is really no word for this. Sympathy is not good enough. It was a sort of power of getting into another man’s life and treating it as if it were his own.”

Craiglockhart was not an easy post but Rivers seemed to thrive. He was at last doing the work that he came to feel he was born to do; stammer, caring eccentricities, curiousness and disregard for unfair authority seemed to come together in gaining trust from his patients. Many of his charges would later recall a father-figure (Sassoon even called him his ‘Father Confessor’) who would listen to their fears without ridicule and who would make each person feel important in their own right, without standing any nonsense. Lt William Evans* wrote of other features of Rivers’ personality; that he never ‘spoke down’ to them, and was ever willing to join in or take a joke – that, equally important but less documented, he “had a quick, dry sense of humour that would always seem far ahead of our own. By the time we thought of an answer, he’d be ready with the next line. If you were lucky you got to spot the mischief hidden in his eyes. I used to enjoy those verbal sparring matches and, I think, so did he.” Since so much of society shunned these men and gave them a feeling of inferiority because they had broken down, this was all a great boost to their confidence, particularly because none of it was artificial.

 

It was especially pleasing to Rivers that a great number of his patients kept in contact with him after they left the hospital, even from the Frontline. Typically the doctor only records his scientific reaction, that this was useful to him in that it “helped him keep track of how well his treatment held out in the field” but he was obviously delighted from a personal point of view. Thus, he had just finished settling in when two disruptive events occurred: the arrival of Siegfried Sassoon and the invitation (more in the air of a challenge) to visit another doctor, Lewis Yealland, and compare their differing techniques.

* Information provided by Ms S Murray, New York.

Sassoon, Rivers' patient

2nd Lt S. Sassoon (1886-1967)

It could be said that the friendship which grew between Rivers and Sassoon was at first something of a double-edged sword. The poet arrived at Craiglockhart after making a protest (A Soldiers’ Declaration http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/education/tutorials/intro/sassoon/declaration.html ) against the prolonging and conduct of the war in which he wrote an open letter to the Times newspaper and refused to return to the frontline after recovery from a wound. Until a friend intervened on his behalf, there was a small possibility that he would be shot for defiance of a direct order, but instead it was decided he was suffering from shell-shock and thus his next destination was to be Rivers’ treatment room.

Doubtful that Sassoon was ill at all and charged by the authorities with the task of persuading the officer to recant, Rivers originally considered refusing to ‘treat’ him. What would then have happened can only be speculated but, in the end, convinced by his colleagues, the doctor accepted the new patient and set to work. Ironically the two liked each other on sight although Rivers found his ‘patient’ to be somewhat immature and ‘protopathic’, almost spoilt; Sassoon, on the other hand, was pleasantly surprised to discover he had been sent to someone who would actually listen to him, even if he did not agree, and would discuss the issue rationally without recrimination.

Circumstances, however, took an interesting turn; Sassoon came to acknowledge the wisdom of the doctor, Rivers slowly began to adhere more and more to the poet’s point of view. The treatment and expectations laid upon the troops was neither what was proposed at the start of the conflict, nor what the government suggested after three years of war. Nudged again by his doubts, the doctor was slowly becoming more and more disturbed at the thought that he was curing soldiers who would merely be sent back to war. As Pat Barker put it “he was a very humane, a very compassionate person who was tormented really by the suffering he saw.” Unlike Sassoon, however, Rivers knew there was little point in one man, or a few making a protest and that the numbers needed to make the government take notice were extremely unlikely to come forward. The most probable outcome of his refusing to go on with his medical work would be the loss of his job – not that he was concerned by that on his own behalf, but that it would merely serve to give the powers that be another weapon to use versus less harsh treatments of trauma the debate as to the reality of shell-shock as an illness itself. His patients would suffer, and many more like them. Burdened by a sense of guilt but no other sensible solution available Rivers gradually began to succumb to similar symptoms, “Shellsocked by his own patients” the author explains (Regeneration, Barker, 1991) but resisted any attempts to get him to rest. Eventually Bryce decided to ‘pull rank’ and order the doctor to take two weeks leave.

Rivers’ leave mostly comprised of visits to family and friends, including his sisters who lived in Duncan Road,^ Ramsgate and Henry Head in London but he also took the opportunity to answer an invitation issued by Lewis Yealland, a Canadian doctor who worked at the Royal Victoria Hospital Netley, near South Hampton. He believed shell-shock was not an illness at all and was merely the result of laziness or degeneracy, hence his ‘cures’ were rather more like punishment. He specialised in using electric shock and persuasion, persuasion usually involving locking himself and a patient in a room the applying shock to whichever part of the body was effected by trauma symptoms. The patient would be told that he would not leave the room until his symptoms were gone, and that any protests he made would not be listened to. Yealland seemed to think of doctors like Rivers as rivals and wrong in their thinking so he relished the chance to offer the Times newspapers’ ‘Eminent Psychologist’ (as worded in report on Sassoon’s letter) a demonstration as to why his methods were best. Rivers found he was as good as his word and was left much disturbed by what he witnessed.

Yealland claimed his methods were better because it ridded the soldier of the signs of trauma and got him back to his unit much faster than Rivers talking cure which could last at least three months. He was so convincing that Rivers, already disturbed by the doubts his experience with patients had given him, truly worried as to whether Yealland was right. Deep down, his medical knowledge and own past comforted him, that Yealland was only addressing the outer symptoms with no real consideration of the long-term effect on the soldier but even that, and Sassoon’s assurance that the men preferred his ‘gentler miracles’ (Sherston’s Progress, Sassoon, 1936) did not quite quell the anxiety.

 

^^Katharine and Ethel Rivers lived at Oxelow, 28 Duncan Rd, Ramsgate., Kent until 1939 and 1943 respectively. The house, partially extended and renewed, is still there. The garden walls and windows appear to be original

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