|Pat Barker's Regeneration|
"Bolsheviks and Britain in World War One"
Patrick Knight (Spring 2003)
During one of the therapy and wit sessions between Rivers and Prior at Craiglockhart, we discover that class struggle is an issue plaguing Prior. Pat Barker introduces the reference to Bolsheviks on page 135 in order to have her readers strictly denounce the caste system of British society, both for the soldiers returning home, and also the women who continued to be victims of the same system in Britain during World War One.
Understanding the role Bolsheviks play in affecting Britain's soldiers and citizens during World War One first requires background information on both Russian interests and Russia's relationship to Germany. Russia entered World War One after Germany declared war against Russia due to an alliance system between Germany and Austria. The Russians had little success in repelling the Germans, illustrated by the disaster at Tannenberg where more then 30,000 Russians soldiers died (Sherow). Germany subsequently made large gains into Russian territories. Tsar Nicholas II had no choice but to abdicate the throne in March 1917, allowing the Bolsheviks to take power (Sherow). It is very important to note that the Germans allowed "prominent Bolsheviks like Lenin and Trotsky" to pass by rail through their country "to start a revolution and knock Russia out of the war" (Simpson). Due to the Bolshevik revolution not completely coming from a democratic mandate from the people, Britain shows extreme suspicion towards Russian motives henceforth.
Distrust and skepticism within Britain toward the new Bolshevik government led to Britain's reluctance to support it and a hands off diplomatic approach to Russian problems. By 1917 it was evident that the "question of peace and war would be a bitter source of controversy within the Bolshevik party" (Kowalski 11). Lenin had uncompromisingly defended his position not to continue the war, a decision that was leading to a split in the upper ranks of the party (Kowalski 33). His reasoning was that any imperialist states should not be negotiated for peace, instead calling "for an international civil war against world capitalism" (Kowalski 11). Lenin’s statements are quite a shock for the newly opened spheres of investments that had led to a great interest in Eastern Europe industries (Sherow). France and even Britain had loaned out much money to facilitate the growth --and, hopefully, returns-- in Eastern Europe; any resort to war at this point would cost both countries dearly (Sherow). War minister Winston Churchill was the only prominent British cabinet member to call for "large-scale deployment of British troops into Russia" (Kadish 11). The cabinet immediately isolated Churchill and his hawkish views. March 1918 brought the deployment of the British Expeditionary Force in Northern Russia. They had a plain purpose to firm any "eastern front against the Germans, but with the hope that the Bolsheviks would somehow be accidentally overthrown in the process" (Kadish 11). This hope to overthrow the Bolsheviks highlights the dislike and distrust felt by most of Britain towards the alien, anti-imperialistic views of the incoming Russian power.
Prior's Bolshevik comment is part of his larger plan to test Rivers' wit and intelligence, in order to gain his respect and eventually friendship. In the scene where Prior references Bolsheviks, we learn that Prior is very eager to go back to the front-lines and continue proving himself as a higher class citizen in the "club to end all clubs" (Barker 135). Rivers immediately sees an opportunity to usher the conversation back into his corner by saying that even he had not finished school at a Cambridge or Oxford, yet he still made it into the upper ranks of British medical society. Rivers immediately goes on to describe how the system will be inherently different in Britain after the war, thus altering Prior's immediate future. Rivers can't help but think that "things'll be freer after the war…hundreds of thousand of young men have been thrown into the working class…that has to have some impact" (Barker 135). Prior shows his natural wit by quipping that Rivers should be careful about what he says, warning him that he is "beginning to sound like a Bolshevik" (Barker 135). Being the only patient to seriously reference the current world events, Prior is clearly trying to up the ante for Rivers, using his intelligence to do so. Prior’s witty remark takes Rivers' intended purpose to convey a need for Prior to have faith in his abilities and flips it right back. This is Prior's way of letting Rivers' know he approves of his remarks, and Prior even "scowled ferociously, probably to his pleasure" (Barker 135) in light of Rivers’ gracious complements and attention to his woes.
Prior's accurate knowledge of the military caste system implemented by Britain during World War One perfectly depicts the different class status for the same military rank, even further perpetuated when the soldiers come back to British soil. Officers like Sassoon are given special treatment for being Cambridge or Oxford educated gentlemen, as compared to the lower class treatment Prior receives because of his "temporary gentlemen" status given to temporarily fill the shortage of officers. Sassoon's status awards him the use of Rivers’ time when he finds it convenient around his golf schedule and Rivers even "put [Sassoon] up for [his] club" (Barker 70). Rivers does not offer anything close to this hospitality to Prior and is often quite rude to him. This rudeness is never verbally spoken, but the omniscient view of Rivers tells the readers that he thought of Prior as "cuckoo-backed to the point where normal conversation became almost impossible" (Barker 65). Getting into Rivers' mind allows the readers to see the facade he erects when talking to the lower class versus upper class. This facade allows Rivers to perpetuate the caste system by awarding Sassoon preferred treatment, something Prior and the rest of the patients at Craiglockhart are unable to receive.
This type of caste behavior is not just limited to the soldier's brothers in arms; British civilian population also perpetuated the caste system. Sarah's mother, Ada, attempts to perpetuate a generation of caste beliefs of a woman's place in British high society, a society that World War One is quickly circumventing. Ada views the only method of becoming a high class women is to "put a value on yourself," for the sole reason that if "you don't, they [gentlemen] won't" (Barker 194). Viewing this type of behavior as ridiculous, Sarah has all the proof in her sister's following of their mother's advice and leading her into barely making it in the world. Barely making it is quite an understatement, because, according to Sarah, if her sister "didn't live at home, she wouldn't eat" (Barker 194). Sarah is quite the opposite as she embraces a "rough" lifestyle, according to Ada; Sarah is prosperous enough to afford a room and basic necessities. According to Ada, a rough lifestyle is working at a local munitions factory, mingling with the other women who work there. The munitions job aids Sarah monetarily, helps defy the caste system that controlled women's life up until World War One, and takes strides in creating a society catered more towards the returning soldiers, just like Prior.
The importance the Bolsheviks place in discussion of class is often echoed in Regeneration. Class adds a cultural depth to the world of Craiglockhart and the surrounding town to truly show the challenges the soldiers would face when coming back to Britain. Even the women left behind were not exempt from the same type caste society that the returning soldiers were facing. Pat Barker exemplifies how quickly any camaraderie of the battlefield melts away, allowing the caste system to perpetuate, even after the lessons of World War One are learned at such a high human cost.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 2003.
Kadish, Sharman. Bolsheviks and British Jews: the Anglo Jewish community, Britain, and the Russian Revolution. London: Frank Cass & Co. LTD, 1992.
Kowalski, Ronald. The Bolshevik Party In Conflict. London: Macmillan Press LTD, 1991.
Sherow, James. "The United States and World War." Kansas State University, History 252. Manhattan, KS. 28 Feb. 2003.
Simpson, Matt. "The Minor Powers During World War One Russia." 4 Dec. 2001. First World War.com. 13 Apr. 2003. <http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/minorpowers_russia.htm>.