“Good morning, good morning! The General said
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’, grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both with his plan of Attack.”
Siegfried Sassoon was born into a life of wealth and privilege and in the years preceding the outbreak of war he felt no obligation to attain either academic achievement or pursue a career but instead preferred the life of a country gentleman, riding out, playing golf, and indulging his great passion – poetry.
But like most young men of his background he had a sense of duty and a deep if sometimes subdued patriotism and as war appeared imminent he enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry and trained as an Officer receiving his Commission the in May, 1915.
In November he received the tragic news that his much loved younger brother Hamo had been killed at Gallipoli.
The loss affected him greatly but served only to make him push harder for a front-line posting which he finally received in March, 1916.
Sassoon was to prove an exceptional Officer both dedicated to and protective of the men under his command but he was also a conflicted man – confused by his latent homosexuality that saw bonds of affection develop with fellow Officers that might not otherwise have been the case, and he was similarly bewildered by his physical commitment to a war on the battlefield that he was fast becoming disenchanted with in his heart.
Nevertheless, he was brave to the point of recklessness earning him the nickname “Mad Jack” and in May 1916, whilst leading a night-time raid into No-Man’s-Land his courage in rescuing a fellow soldier saw him awarded the Military Cross.
After participating in the Battle of the Somme he was struck down by a severe bout of dysentery and briefly repatriated home and it was now among friends and family that he first began to express his doubts about the war.
It was on visits home that he would become maudlin and despondent as if amid the mud and the blood of the trenches he could lose himself as a man of action in defence not just of his country but the men under his command, venting his anger on the enemy and sating his melancholy in the written word.
But in the peace and tranquility of hearth and home he could see with unvarnished eyes the panoramic vistas of insanity.
In April 1917, he was shot by a sniper and was once again repatriated to England for a period of convalescence where encouraged by those such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell and the Garsington Pacifists he was encouraged to give voice to his disillusionment.
Given the possible consequences for Sassoon of doing so these people should not perhaps be considered friends and it has been suggested that they exploited him for their own ends, but if so it appears he was a willing victim.
Having already disposed of his Military Cross by throwing it into the sea on 15 June he wrote his famous Soldier’s Declaration against the war which he sent to his Commanding Officer, and which was read out the following month in the House of Commons and later published in The Times Newspaper:
“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects that actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings 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.
I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.”
In a war where any dissent from the front-line was frowned upon and Sassoon himself would have regularly censored the letters of his men this was borderline treason.
His friend, the author Robert Graves fearing that he would be court-martialled urged him not to do it.
He had experienced first-hand how the death of Siegfried’s younger brother had impacted upon the family, describing in his memoir of the war “Goodbye, to All That”, how when staying a night in the dead brother’s bedroom which had remained unaltered since his death with fresh flowers provided every day and his favourite cigarettes on the bedside table, being woken in the early hours of the morning by the rapping sounds and peculiar wailings of a séance.
Sassoon’s mother later apologised for having disturbed him.
He now feared that Siegfried was about to inflict further grief on the family so he used his connections to interceded on his behalf.
The Military Authorities sensitive to morale at home were prepared to listen and rather than consider him a traitor and prosecute a well-known war hero he was instead diagnosed as having been rendered mentally and emotionally unstable as a result of sustained front-line service and possible shell-shock.
He was sent to the psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh to receive psychotherapy, a fairly new treatment also known as the – talking cure.
At Craiglockhart he became friends with the fellow Officer and poet Wilfred Owen who was there also recovering from the effects of shell-shock.
Sassoon was to remain at Craiglockhart for a number of months but endured an increasing sense of guilt that whilst he lived in comfort and talked literature and poetry late into the night his men continued to suffer and die on the Western Front.
His subsequent request to return to front-line duties was accepted.
By the spring of 1918 he was back in France in time to resist the Germans last great offensive in the war.
Ironically, given the many risks he had taken throughout the war including the capture of an enemy trench single-handed, on 13 July he was shot in the head possibly as the result of friendly fire and invalided out of the army.
The years immediately following the end of the war were a troubled time for Sassoon as once more immersed into a life of privilege so far away from the horror of the trenches and those who fought alongside him who now endured unemployment and increased poverty, he embarked upon a series of homosexual affairs with young men who had no understanding or even concern for the pain suffered by those who were their seniors of just a few years.
It only served to damage him further.
In 1933, he married Hester Gatty, a woman many years his junior, which at least provided some stability in his life and a son whom he adored, and though they were later to separate it was to prove a signal and transformative moment.
Siegfried Sassoon who had survived the worst of trench warfare in the most horrific conflict then known to man lived to old age during which time he converted to Roman Catholicism and renewed his interest in spiritualism.
He was also to write his semi-fictional sketches from the front, one of the great testaments of the war, and continue to produce well-received poetry all his life but it will always be his wartime verse for which he is best remembered and admired.
For a man who had been so emotionally engaged with the war, with its people, and the events occurring around him, Sassoon’s poetry has a disturbingly dispassionate and matter-of-fact quality that resonates with the gravity of resignation and despair.
It has an earnestness lacking in so many others, an acid-tongued cynicism that slices through the solemnity and maudlin introspection of regret and loss that lights up the fog of despondency but barely and without relief:
Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy,
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 crumbs and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindled eye
Who cheer when soldiers march by;
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.