With the last of the First World War combatants laid to rest, it falls to those who knew them to keep them alive as individuals, rather than as faceless figures from history or names on headstones planted in ranks across the old battlefields of Flanders.
Pat Barker, born on Teesside during the Second World War, grew up with the legacy of the First.
At her home in Durham, the Booker Prize-winning author explains: “I was brought up by my grandparents and it was the war they were involved in, and my grandfather fought in, during their youth.
“It was a big factor in their lives and therefore in mine. That kind of personal contact isn’t possible now because the last of the participants are gone.”
Not for the first time Pat recalls how, as a girl, she was confronted unwittingly with the cruel realities of her grandfather’s war service.
“He went to the British Legion once a week and used to get stripped off and wash at the kitchen sink. That was when I was very, very small. I noticed this bayonet wound in his side which had a sort of hole in the middle. I used to stick my finger in it.
“It was a very messy wound, not like a surgical incision. I’d say, ‘What’s that, Grandad?’ and I don’t think he’d reply. It was not something he talked about although he wasn’t ashamed of it. It was part of what he was.
“But towards the end of his life he had cancer and suffered a haemorrhage.
“People weren’t told they had cancer then. Patients were treated as idiots most of the time so nobody said the word to him at all. In his mind the wound had started to leak internally. He ended his days thinking the bayonet wound had got him in the end.
“He was an officer’s servant. What had actually happened was that he was bayonetted but the officer, who had a revolver, shot the man before he could twist and withdraw the bayonet. It was the twist and withdraw action that made the bayonet lethal.”
Pat, whose knowledge of aspects of the First World War is encyclopaedic, adds that only three per cent of 1914-18 wounds were caused by bayonets, with shrapnel and machine gun fire accounting for most fatalities.
Though not shared with her in any detail, it was her grandfather’s wartime experience that first inspired her to put pen to paper.
“I wrote a poem about it during my first year in grammar school, even though he didn’t talk about it. I think silence and mystery are what get a writer’s imagination going. It’s not being told things, it’s realising you’re not being told things that gets you started. The silence is what I had to go on.”
Having started, aged 11, thinking she would like to be a writer, it was perhaps just as well Pat had no vision of the road ahead. “I finally succeeded when I was 39 so you could say I was a late starter,” she says with a smile.
“It wasn’t easy to break in as an author back then but when you did break in, you were more likely to find a publisher who would stick with you and try to build your career from book to book. That’s what is missing now.”
Pat’s first published novel, Union Street, focused on the lives of seven women in a gritty North East neighbourhood. It came out in 1982, her first taste of success after three “middle class novels” written in the 1970s had failed to satisfy her or find a publisher.
Four books later, in 1991, came Regeneration, the first in the trilogy set against the First World War whose third instalment, The Ghost Road, earned her the Booker Prize in 1995.
In Regeneration, which is fiction spun from fact, Pat focuses on WHR Rivers, a psychiatrist who did pioneering work on shell shock victims. His most famous patient was the poet and war hero Siegfried Sassoon who had been sent for treatment at Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, after his famous Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration was published in The Times in 1917.
Pat’s novel begins with this document – literary dynamite at a time when the armed forces were recruiting to fill the gaps left by the ravages of the Somme offensive (60,000 British casualties on the first day).
“I am writing this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers.”
Robert Graves, a fellow combatant and poet, managed to persuade the authorities that Sassoon was probably suffering from the new and mysterious affliction known as shellshock.
He was detailed to escort Sassoon to Craiglockhart but missed the train, leaving the patient – nicknamed ‘Mad Jack’ for his heroics in the trenches but known as ‘Patient B’ to Rivers – to travel north alone.
This happened in reality and adds a droll note to the early pages of Regeneration, a powerful novel which brings history vividly to life.
It was at Craiglockhart that Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and advised the younger man about his poetry. It is all in Pat’s novel and now it is in the well-received stage adaptation of Regeneration which is coming to Darlington Civic Theatre next week.
A film version of the novel, with Jonathan Pryce as Rivers, came out in 1997 and the BBC is planning an adaptation of the whole trilogy (the second part being The Eye in the Door, published in 1993). Pat thinks it might be broadcast in 2016, a century after the Somme battle.
Artists and writers strove to convey the unsanitised horrors of the trenches and it falls to similarly creative people to pass the message on to young people today.
Pat says: “Before Union Street I wrote a short passage about the First World War but it never went anywhere. It never became a fully fledged story, so I was wanting to write about it for a long, long time before I actually did write about it.
“What freed me up to write about it really was encountering Dr Rivers. One of the things I didn’t want to do was write a book which was exactly the same kind of book as the combatants would have written and in some cases did write.
“It was my husband (David, a zoology professor and neurologist who died in 2009) who told me about the Rivers-Head (that’s neurologist Sir Henry Head) experiments on the regeneration of nerves, where they severed one of Head’s nerves and plotted its regeneration.
“I had read Sassoon’s memoirs and Graves’ memoirs but Rivers was a very modest and retiring man and not a lot was known about him personally. The problem with Wilfred Owen is that he tends to come trailing the legend of Wlfred Owen.”
Rivers, then, was ushered into the public consciousness and a light shone into some of the darker corners of the First World War story. Regeneration, published long before the centenary of the war was even being talked about, has come to the fore again.
The stage adaptation by Nicholas Wright is a co-production between theatre company The Touring Consortium and the Royal & Derngate theatre in Northampton. Stephen Boxer plays Rivers, Tim Delap is Sassoon, Garmon Rhys is Owen and Jack Monaghan plays Billy Prior, one of the fictional characters in the Barker novel.
Pat says she didn’t meet Nicholas Wright until the play’s opening night. “I think it’s a very good production. I think I had consultation rights with the script and the casting. I read the script and said yes.
“I would have said something if I thought they had got the casting wrong but I thought they were spot on. I don’t get hysterical when people change things. Just because you know what works on the page doesn’t mean you know what works in the theatre, where Nicholas Wright has spent his career.”
After The Ghost Road Pat took a break from 1914-18 but returned to it with Life Class in 2007, this time inspired by the young artists whose studies at the famous Slade School of Fine Art were interrupted by war. Once again real-life and fictional characters peopled her story.
There was a sequel, Toby’s Room, in 2012 and Pat is working on the third book in this second trilogy. It is to be called Noonday. “It will be out, I think, in October or November next year. It takes the main characters into the early months of the Second World War.”
This is new territory. Pat reflects on her grandfather’s generation and their silence about the trench war which they fought in and which fascinates us so much.
“They fought the war to end all wars, then they watched their sons and daughters and nephews and nieces 20 years later having to do virtually the same thing again.
“We see them as a very strong, stoical generation but I think, at that particular point in their lives, there was a feeling of failure – that it should have been sorted out when they were in uniform but it wasn’t sorted out.”
Wives who had lost husbands watched their sons grow up and lost them too. “You can see it on war memorials, the same family names,” says Pat.
“There was a communal sense of grief and it’s very difficult for us to imagine now. I think one of the difficulties of being a victim of a modern war fought by a professional army is that there isn’t a group of people who share the experiences you’ve been through.”
This Remembrance Day, says Pat, she will be wearing her poppy and joining the audience at Darlington Civic Theatre where Regeneration runs from November 11-15. Box office: tel. 01325 486555.