Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry
Siegfried Sassoon (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)
both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirised the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon’s view, were responsible for a vainglorious war. He later won acclaim for his prose work, notably his three-volume fictionalised autobiography, collectively known as the Sherston Trilogy. Again, there is so much to say about the ole Soony, that I have taken most of what follows from wikipedia.
Sassoon was educated at The New Beacon Preparatory School, Sevenoaks, Kent; at Marlborough College, Marlborough, Wiltshire (where he was a member of Cotton House), and at Clare College, Cambridge, where from 1905 to 1907 he read history. He went down from Cambridge without a degree and spent the next few years hunting, playing cricket and writing verse: some he published privately. Since his father had been disinherited from the Sassoon fortune for marrying a non-Jew, Siegfried had only a small private fortune that allowed him to live modestly without having to earn a living (however, he would later be left a generous legacy by an aunt, Rachel Beer, allowing him to buy the great estate of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire. His first published success, The Daffodil Murderer (1913), was a parody of John Masefield‘s The Everlasting Mercy. Robert Graves, in Good-Bye to All That, describes it as a “parody of Masefield which, midway through, had forgotten to be a parody and turned into rather good Masefield.”
Sassoon expressed his opinions on the political situation before the onset of the First World War – “France was a lady, Russia was a bear, and performing in the county cricket team was much more important than either of them.” However, motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the British Army just as the threat of World War I was realised, and was in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on the day the United Kingdom declared war (4 August 1914). He broke his arm badly in a riding accident and was put out of action before even leaving England, spending the spring of 1915 convalescing. At around this time his younger brother Hamo was killed in the Gallipoli Campaign, (Rupert Brooke, whom Siegfried had briefly met, died on the way there.) Hamo’s death hit Siegfried very hard. He was commissioned into 3rd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant on 29 May 1915, and in November was sent to the 1st Battalion in France. There he met Robert Graves and they became close friends. United by their poetic vocation, they often read and discussed one another’s work. Though this did not have much perceptible influence on Graves’ poetry, his views on what may be called ‘gritty realism’ profoundly affected Sassoon’s concept of what constituted poetry. In Goodbye To All That, Graves narrates that when they first swapped poetry, Sassoon, who was yet to begin a tour of the trenches, contended that war should not be written about so realistically (as Graves chose to write about it). Graves replied by telling him he would change his style, and indeed he did, for Sassoon soon became horrified by the realities of war, and the tone of his writing changed completely: where his early poems exhibit a Romantic, dilettantish sweetness, his war poetry moves to an increasingly discordant music, intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propeganda. Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time, and this philosophy of ‘no truth unfitting’ had a significant effect on the movement towards Modernist poetry.
Sassoon’s periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed, but vainglorious, capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades he scattered 60 German soldiers:
He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz wood had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. ‘British patrols’ were Siegfried and his book of poems. ‘I’d have got you a D.S.O., if you’d only shown more sense,’ stormed his senior officer.
Sassoon’s bravery was inspiring to the extent that soldiers of his company said that they felt confident only when they were accompanied by him (according to himself!) He often went out on night-raids and bombing patrols and demonstrated ruthless efficiency as a company commander. Deepening depression at the horror and misery the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed “Mad Jack” by his men for his near-suicidal exploits. On 27 July 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross; the citation read:
2nd Lt. Siegfried Lorraine [sic
] Sassoon, 3rd (attd. 1st) Bn., R. W. Fus. For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.
Robert Graves described Sassoon as engaging in suicidal feats of bravery. Sassoon was also later (unsuccessfully) recommended for the Victoria Cross.
Despite his decoration and reputation, he decided in 1917 to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas, called “Dick Tiltwood” in the Sherston trilogy, (and the subject of Graves’ poem Goliath and David – if you missed it, see the last post in this series ). He would spend years trying to overcome his grief.
At the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty; instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer, titled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. In this document, which he wrote on behalf of his fellow soldiers, Sassoon argued that the war was being unnecessarily prolonged by greedy politicians who desired not peace but Imperial gain at any cost. Forwarded to the press and read out in Parliament by a sympathetic MP, the letter was seen by some as treasonous (“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority”) or at best condemnatory of the war government’s motives (“I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest”). Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the Under-Secretary of State for War Ian Macpherson, influenced by Graves and others, decided that he was unfit for service and had him sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia(“shell shock“). Before declining to return to active service he had thrown the ribbon from his Military Cross into the river Mersey.
The novel Regeneration, by Pat Barker, is a fictionalised account of this period in Sassoon’s life, and was made into a film starring James Wilby as Sassoon and Jonathan Pryce as W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist responsible for Sassoon’s treatment. Rivers became a kind of surrogate father to the troubled young man, and his sudden death in 1922 was a major blow to Sassoon.
At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet who would eventually exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry. A manuscript copy of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth containing Sassoon’s handwritten amendments survives as testimony to the extent of his influence and is currently on display at London’s Imperial War Museum. To all intents and purposes, Sassoon became to Owen “Keats and Christ and Elijah”; surviving documents demonstrate clearly the depth of Owen’s love and admiration for him. Both men returned to active service in France, but Owen was killed in 1918. Sassoon, despite all this, was promoted to First Lieutenant and having spent some time out of danger in Palestine, eventually returned to the Front. On 13 July 1918, Sassoon was almost immediately wounded again—by friendly fire after he was shot in the head by a fellow British soldier who had mistaken him for a German near Arras, France. As a result, he spent the remainder of the war in Britain. By this time he had been promoted acting captain. He relinquished his commission on health grounds on 12 March 1919, but was allowed to retain the rank of captain. After the war, Sassoon was instrumental in bringing Owen’s work to the attention of a wider audience. Their friendship is the subject of Stephen MacDonald‘s play, Not About Heroes.
After the war Sassoon went on to live at troubled life. He struggled with homosexuality and his post-war poetry took on a confused, religious slant. He fell out with most of his former friends, including Graves, and went somewhat into seclusion. He died one week before his 81st birthday, of stomach cancer, and is buried at St Andrew’s Church, Mells, Somerset.
There are so many great poems to chose from, but I have chosen Suicide in the Trenches and The General for your consideration. The first is a typical Sassoonian rant against the system, calling into question chiefly the fools at home who cheered their boys off to war, knowing nothing of what awaited them in France. The second is a crafty poem full of dark humour, abrupt and to the point.
Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.