|Pat Barker's Regeneration|
"Class Distinctions on the War Front"
Megan Robinson (Spring 2003)
Pat Barker's novel Regeneration explores the effects that World War I has on the human condition and more specifically on the condition of the British people. One particular area of exploration is the detrimental presence of class distinctions within the ranks of the British military. This issue of class distinction is addressed specifically on pages 66 and 67 of the novel through a conversation between Billy Prior and Dr. Rivers. The characters' discussion reinforces Barker's theme of the injustices of these class distinctions and the harm they produce on the war front.
Class distinctions were only too apparent within Britain's military entities. The Army "structured itself around class" and "in many ways . . . recreated the British class system in miniature: aristocratic generals, middle-class officers, and a working class rank and file" (Robb 84). This structure reinforced on the war front the class distinctions of the home front, and the "long-standing prejudices of the British class system ensured that enlisted men were treated almost like children." Some soldiers played the role of servant and waited on officers of high class who enjoyed luxuries unheard of to those existing in the grime of the trenches (Robb 85).
In spite of the large gaps between fellow fighting men as a result of cross over social practices and of class structure within the ranks, the progression of the war caused some class boundaries to begin blurring as a need for more officers arose. The Army's initial officer class of 15, 000 men was expanded with the addition of 235, 000 individuals over the course of the war. The either permanent or temporary commissioning of these individuals gave them the title of "temporary gentlemen" ("Service").
This label of "temporary gentleman" applies to Prior in Barker's story, given his rank of Second Lieutenant. His lower class birth and provisional status place Prior in ridicule's way. During a therapy session with Rivers, Prior is asked how he "fit in" with those on the war front. In response to this question his "face shut[s] tight," and Prior asks, in order to clarify, "You mean, did I encounter any snobbery?" Prior answers his own question in the affirmative and informs Rivers that "it's made perfectly clear" who is immediately accepted at the front and who is not. He cites certain status enhancements such as having attended "the right school" or wearing shirts of "the right colour[,] [w]hich is a deep shade of khaki." Prior notes that he comes nowhere close to possessing any of these high-class qualifications (Barker 66) and suffers accordingly.
Prior's discussion with Rivers highlights specific examples of "snobbery" and blatantly reveals the degree of class bias and prejudices at the war front. This conversation leads to Prior's primary concern that those back home believe "there are no class distinctions at the front" (Barker 67). He informs Rivers that "What you wear, what you eat. Where you sleep. What you carry" (Baker 67) all contribute to the reinforcement of class distinctions. Despite Prior's rank as Second Lieutenant, he is snubbed because of his social status. His experiences on the war front inform readers of the prevalent nature of class distinctions within British culture. The pettiness of concern over the shade of khaki someone is wearing illustrates the absurdity of such distinctions. And the value placed on officers of higher class in contrast to the disregard given for soldiers of lower social standing shows the "snobbery" within the British social structure that leads to the unjust and suspect view of soldiers as expendable. Thus, Prior's personal experiences directly contribute to his understanding of the presence of class distinctions on the war front.
Prior's words further reveal a misplaced importance on the superficial by officers of upper class. This revelation points to a similar behavior of higher degree: The misuse of men from a lower social standing by men from a higher social standing to fight a war which has veered in its original purpose. This misconduct, which brings harm to many and which results from class distinctions, is stated clearly by Siegfried Sassoon in his Declaration: "This war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest . . . I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust" (Barker 3). Sassoon reacts against those who share his natural status as a gentleman and scorns their continuation of the war at the expense of the troops: "For both Sassoon and Prior, upper class privilege is a smoke screen for actions that result in needless death and wasted energies on the battlefield and unwarranted control at home" (Westman 53). Barker utilizes Prior and Sassoon's reactions of disgust and contempt to support her theme of the injustices of class distinctions.
The conversation between Prior and Rivers is a small piece of Barker's larger discussion of Britain's social class distinctions. Their conversation illustrates the negative results that stem from Britain's social structure, which is reproduced within the trenches of war. Class distinctions are explored further through characters like Sarah, Sarah's mother, Prior's parents, and other patients at Craiglockhart. Barker's inclusion of these characters' experiences and their social standings within British society reinforce her theme of the injustice of class distinctions and their damaginge effects on the human condition during World War I.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 2003.
"Service Records for the First World War." Public Record Office. 17 April 2003. <http://www.pro.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/servicerecords/sr officers.htm>
Robb, George. British Culture and the First World War. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Westman, Karin E. Pat Barker's Regeneration. New York: Continuum, 2001.