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May Day, 1917

May 01st 2017    Category: General

One day, around 18th April, Wilfred was almost killed by a stray shell, while asleep near Savy: “One wet night, when we lay up against a railway embankment, a big shell lit on top, just two yards from my head…I was blown in the air right away from the bank,” as he wrote to his mother. He goes on to say that he was in a small hole, covered with corrugated iron, the remains of his erstwhile friend Lieut. Gaukroger scattered near-by. In fact Gaukroger had been killed in the Savy Wood attack on 2nd April, over a fortnight earlier, but it is possible that the shell disinterred his body, which his military file says was buried “in the vicinity of Savy”, before it was transferred to Savy British Cemetery after the war. Also Owen was in the line 9 days, not 12; clearly the explosion that concussed him a second time had confused his memory. This was one of the symptoms noticed by his CO, on May 1st, along with his being “shaky and tremulous and his conduct peculiar.” So when Colonel Luxmore handed over the Regiment to his temporary replacement, the “odious” Major Dempster, 1st May, the Medical officer sent him down to Gailly again. He arrived the next day.

Gailly was now a specialist hospital for Shell-shock cases, of which there were some 20 officers and 400 other ranks. They were now labelled with “neurasthenia”, which covered a range of symptoms: shaking, gibbering, stuttering, unable to walk. As Wilfred hinted in a letter home, part of his problem stemmed from concussion, but the doctor was also “nervous about my nerves”. He is confident however: “Do not suppose for a moment that I have had a ‘breakdown’. I am simply avoiding one.” And he describes the Nerve Specialist Dr. Browne, as a ‘kind of wizard’.

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