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Tuesday 7th February 2006

The Hydra

Two of Britain's finest war poets - Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon - spent time at a hospital for officers with shell shock, in Edinburgh during 1917 and 1918. The episode inspired Pat Barker's novel "Regeneration", which has been made into a film. But now the hunt is on for some literary memorabilia produced at the time... the Craiglockhart War Hospital magazine.

It was called "The Hydra". Wilfred Owen edited it. It 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, who own the Craiglockhart building, want 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 the first world war. By an extraordinary chance, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were there at the same time, and both worked on "The Hydra" magazine.

Critics say 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 aren't any original  copies of the magazines at all now at Craiglockhart, which has become part of Napier University.

Librarian Catherine Walker says "we've just got photocopies of the Hydra from the University of Oxford".

But even studying the copies is fascinating, she says. "We've got one of Wilfred Owen's editorials on display. It says: "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 magazine includes routine house-keeping notices ('The Committee have asked us to point out that it is strictly against regulations for officers to appear in public in bathing costume'), and updates on the livestock ('The chickens have made very great progress during the past fortnight, and are now looking wonderfully strong and healthy'). There's also what must surely be a deepky 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.

James Boyle, who chairs the committee that got Edinburgh awarded the status of UNESCO City of Literature, says 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 says looking at photocopies, or even digital images of the magazines on-line, is better than nothing. But having paper copies back in the building where the magazines were written would be much better.

"We'd like to get hold of a complete set of "The Hydra" magazine for the University, which now encompasses the old Craiglockhart spa... and we'd like people who may have had relatives there, or indeed folk or 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 are especially keen to track down three editions of the magazine, which may have been published between February and April nineteen eighteen, because they're missing from the otherwise complete sets of "The Hydra" held in Oxford, and at the National Library of Scotland.

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