From his late twenties until the end of his life, Siegfried Sassoon suffered from nightmares, triggered by memories of what he had seen and experienced on the Western Front during the First World War. Ironically, these terrible dreams, as well as being recorded in verse, may have contributed to saving both his life and his sanity, since the pioneering psychiatrist, Dr William Rivers, to whom he was sent for treatment, was able to point to them as evidence of "war neurosis" and thus keep Sassoon safe at Craiglockhart Military Hospital for a few months.
Jeff Edwards, who was buried alive for two hours on the morning of 21 October 1966, still has nightmares about the experience. Jeff spent that time unable to move, with the body of a dead acquaintance pressed against him – so reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s experience when he was obliged to spend several days sheltering from shellfire with the body parts of a fellow officer lying alongside him. But Jeff was only eight years old when he was trapped at his school desk. The little girl who had died sitting next to him was the same age.
It is a terrible coincidence that the children of Pantglas Junior School, Aberfan, should have suffered a fate comparable with that endured by grown men on a battlefield, but such was the case. The event that caused their deaths was caused by human failure, just as wars are. And, as with most wars, the guilty were never brought to justice.
On that awful day in October 1966, I was a week or so short of my eleventh birthday. To the best of my recollection, we knew nothing of what had happened in the morning at Aberfan until the school bus dropped us off at our homes just after 4pm. The teachers had not mentioned it to us; perhaps they did not even know about it themselves. There was no television set in the building, probably not so much as a radio in the staff room. Very few children went home for lunch. But some of the adults who worked at the school must surely have heard about it. I rather think they did not know what to say; after all, the rescuers at the scene were still working, still hoping to bring out living children as darkness closed in on the ruins of the school. They did not know that Jeff Edwards would be the last to emerge alive.
We got off our bus and entered a warm, well-lit room to find my mother transfixed by the television news reports. Naturally we did not feel the horror of the events as strongly as she did - we had never even heard of Aberfan - but we did understand that nothing would ever be the same again. In the weeks that followed, much was said about the disaster, but it was a long time, perhaps years, before I became aware that the disaster had not been an "accident" in the true sense of the word. "Buried alive by the National Coal Board", as one bereaved father put it, a phrase now immortalised in the libretto of Karl Jenkins' new commemorative work, Cantata Memoria.
In those days there was no talk of counselling for families who had been bereaved or for those who had been injured. The church or chapel was the nearest they could get to comfort. Several of the children who survived were sent to participate in psychological studies, but, although much was done to alleviate their physical suffering, nothing practical appears to have been done about the possible effects of their experiences on their state of mind. Way back in 1917, Siegfried Sassoon had been luckier.
Dr Rivers resigned from Craiglockhart, along with other medical staff, about a year after Sassoon's departure, when a new, less “sympathetic” regime was introduced. The new director had personal doubts as to whether such a thing as “shell-shock” (PTSD being today’s equivalent) actually existed. He saw the psychological effects of war on soldiers as being either a pretence or evidence of cowardice or, at best, over-sensitivity.
I wonder what Siegfried Sassoon thought and felt when, as a man of eighty, he heard the news about Aberfan. He had been to Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding valleys in 1921. He had gone there specifically to find out what life was like for the families of striking miners, spurred on by a conversation with some of his wealthy friends, who, he felt, failed to appreciate the hardships endured by ordinary men of the kind who had served under him in the recent war. His poem, "The Case for the Miners", pitifully expresses his frustration when faced with this kind of attitude, and does so more effectively than the articles he sent back to London for publication in The Nation.
On the 60th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, the people turn once again to poetry to express their feelings, whether of loss, anger, or simply bafflement. Owen Sheers' "film poem", The Green Hollow, will be broadcast for the first time tomorrow evening (if you're in England, you may have to wait until Sunday). Sheers eloquently recounts his feelings about the making of the film: how he was at first unsure whether it should be done at all, but came round to the idea that it was "a historical story with a deeply urgent contemporary resonance". That description could equally well be given to the world events that blighted the youth of Owen and Sassoon. Over the years, it seems to me, society has learned many lessons from the Aberfan disaster. I wish the same could be said about the First World War.