Page last updated at 18:33 GMT, Tuesday, 7 February 2006

New drive to capture war history

By Huw Williams
BBC News

The Hydra - courtesy of trustees of the Owen estate
Wilfred Owen edited The Hydra between July and October 1917
Two of Britain's finest war poets - Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon - spent time together at a hospital in Edinburgh in 1917 and 1918. The episode inspired Pat Barker's novel "Regeneration".

Now the hunt is on for some literary memorabilia produced at the time, the Craiglockhart War Hospital magazine. BBC Scotland's Huw Williams goes on the trail.

It was called "The Hydra" and Wilfred Owen edited it. The magazine published new work by both authors, and many other patients at the hospital.

But no-one seems to have a complete set of all the magazines that were produced.

Now Napier University, which owns the Craiglockhart building, wants to bring the magazine home, to add to their war poets collection.

Craiglockhart was built as a hydrotherapy centre but requisitioned as a hospital for officers suffering from shell-shock during World War I.

By an extraordinary chance, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were there at the same time, and both worked on The Hydra.

Wilfred Owen
Owen was admitted to Craiglockhart after suffering shell-shock

Critics said the meeting of the two men at Craiglockhart led to a friendship and a literary partnership that was responsible for some of the finest poetry of the Great War.

But there are now not any original copies of the magazines at Craiglockhart.

Librarian Catherine Walker said the university only had photocopies of The Hydra from the University of Oxford.

But even studying the copies was fascinating, she said.

"We've got one of Wilfred Owen's editorials on display.

It said: "Many of us who came to the hydro slightly ill are now getting dangerously well."

That was the case, because the men were sent back to the front once they became well.

The Hydra - courtesy of trustees of the Owen estate
This was the first appearance of one of Owen's poems in print

The magazine included routine house-keeping notices: "It is strictly against regulations for officers to appear in public in bathing costume."

It also featured updates on the livestock: "The chickens have made very great progress during the past fortnight, and are now looking wonderfully strong and healthy."

There was also what must surely have been a deeply ironic complaint about the lack of tea and sugar for night-time drinks: "Eventually in piteous plight we may be reduced to imploring a paternal government to send us back again to the front, to save us from starvation."

The Hydra also printed new work by Siegfried Sassoon and - crucially for his development as a poet - by Wilfred Owen.

'Emotions of the time'

James Boyle, who chaired the committee that helped Edinburgh achieve the status of Unesco City of Literature, said that what happened between the two men was something extraordinary.

"(They were) both shell-shocked, both young officers. The one in awe of the other ... Owen certainly looking up to Sassoon. Two men with a single mind, but above all else with a great creative spark that left with us the emotions of the time through their poetry," he said.

He added that looking at photocopies, or even digital images of the magazines online, was better than nothing.

But having paper copies back in the building where the magazines were written would be much better.

Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon also worked on The Hydra in 1917

"We'd like to get hold of a complete set of The Hydra magazine for the university, which now encompasses the old Craiglockhart spa," Mr Boyle said.

"We'd also like people who may have had relatives there, or indeed folk may have bought it at the time and left it in the attic, to look for it and get in touch with Napier University."

The university is especially keen to track down three editions of the magazine, which may have been published between February and April 1918. They are missing from the otherwise complete sets of The Hydra held in Oxford and at the National Library of Scotland.


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