John Garth recounts how he tracked down long lost issues of a Great War magazine once edited by war poet Wilfred Owen.

The Hydra: The Magazine of Craiglockhart War Hospital, was edited for six issues in 1917 by the famous World War One poet Wilfred Owen, who was being treated there for shell shock. In this Edinburgh hospital he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, who called the place ‘Dottyville’. Under Sassoon’s guidance, Owen found his poetic voice and began writing in his classic ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ mode – elegant yet blunt, brutal yet deeply moving. He published two of these poems in The Hydra, and several by Sassoon also appeared in its pages.

The Hydra was named in reference to the hospital’s pre-war role as a centre for hydrotherapy, but some issues had a fearsome cover image showing the many-headed monster of Greek myth – wry humour by officers suffering from war trauma. The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, run by Oxford, makes all issues of The Hydra available online. All, that is, except for three, which, despite a nationwide appeal in 2006, were feared lost forever.

I had read about The Hydra in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration, which tells of Owen and Sassoon at Craiglockhart. But my own inquiry began utterly obliquely, with JRR Tolkien.

George Henry Bonner, who edited Hydra in 1918, went to school with Tolkien, whose early life I was researching for my book Tolkien and the Great War. Because Bonner went on to a post-war career in journalism, I was confident that somewhere, somehow, he would have commented on the school life he shared with Tolkien. Research on childhoods a century ago can be rather like trawling for coelocanths: you cast the net wide and once in a blue moon you haul in something really valuable. Finding living relatives may be the key, so I set my sights on Bonner’s.

I turned to Edinburgh Napier University, which now runs a campus on the old Craiglockhart hospital site. Librarian Catherine Walker could find nothing further about Bonner. As to the magazine, Napier only had scans of the extant issues, and she said: ‘If I ever find the missing issues, or issues from an original set of Hydra for our collection at Craiglockhart, then I can retire a very happy librarian.’

All the other trails went cold, one by one. Bonner came up to Magdalen in Michaelmas, 1914, but almost immediately enlisted in Kitchener’s Army, ending up in an anti-aircraft battery until invalided home in late 1916 with neurasthenia – shell shock, or as we call it today, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bonner himself wrote poetry: a beautiful sonnet appeared in the Basil Blackwell anthology Oxford Poetry 1920, alongside the work of Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden, edited by Vera Brittain and others. He had briefly returned to Magdalen, presumably to take a shortened degree, and was said to have gone on to Fleet Street. Otherwise, I could find no journalism by him later than 1928, no trace of his fate, and no clue as to family.

The breakthrough, so sudden it felt almost miraculous, came just after I moved from London to Oxford in 2009. In picking up some old threads of research, I mentioned to my friend Peter Gilliver, an associate editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, “This chap Bonner…”.  

The words were hardly out of my mouth before Peter responded, ‘Not Bonner whose wife used to work at the Dictionary?’ Obviously not directly, given the chronology, but quite possibly a relative.

Excited, I dialled the Oxford number Peter had given me, and a polite voice confirmed that I had found the son of George Henry Bonner. Might I call on him to show him my research and talk about his father, I asked. By all means, he said.

And gave me an address just three minutes’ walk from my flat.

I showed Mr Bonner my notes. He showed me family photographs, and explained that his father had died in 1929. He did indeed have some of his papers, and a few days later he fetched them down.

There were plenty of articles, poems, even a play; but nothing personal – no diaries or letters, nothing whatsoever about Tolkien.

What really caught my eye were stray issues of The Hydra, with George Bonner’s name in pencil. I rushed home to check the issue numbers. And so it was that I was able to tell his son that he had two of the three missing issues. We talked about what he could do with them, and I told him I knew they would be greatly welcomed at Oxford and at Edinburgh Napier.

Bonner’s papers are now at Magdalen. As for the missing copies of Hydra, they provide a fascinating glimpse into a lost world, in which traumatised officers understandably fell back on the comfortable certainties of life as they had known it before the war. The Hydra reads like a school or college magazine, and reports enthusiastically, and often with gentle wit, on the clubs and pastimes fostered by the hospital inmates: debates, literature, poultry-keeping, sports, model boats, photography and gardening.

Ben Taylor, archives assistant at Magdalen, says, ‘It’s hugely exciting when lost treasures turn up like that, and wonderful to think that there will always be incredible “lost” documents waiting in attics and filing cabinets to shine brilliant new lights on things.’

The question remains: does someone, somewhere, have the last missing issue of The Hydra?

John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War and Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford undergraduate created Middle-earth. An earlier version of this article appeared in Oxfordshire Limited Edition. Images of The Hydra are reproduced courtesy of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford.