Siegfried Sassoon, despite his Germanic name, his wealthy family and Jewish heritage, became one of England’s most famous soldier-poets of the “Great War.” An enthusiastic volunteer on August 4, 1914, the day England entered the war, he became a commissioned officer and, during training in England, continued writing poetry in the pastoral Edwardian vein he had been self-publishing for some years. He arrived in France on November 17, 1915 a few days after the news of the death of his brother, Hamo, in Gallipoli. By March of 1916 he was at the front for a few months and his perception of the war began to change from the mytho-poetic lines in “To My Brother”
Your lot is with the ghosts of soldiers dead,
And I am in the field where men must fight.
But in the gloom I see your laurell’d head
And through your victory I shall win the light.
to those of his first real war poem, The Redeemer, written in his notebook on March 7-10, 1916:
Darkness: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep;
There, with much work to do before the light,
We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
And droning shells burst with a hollow bang;
We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one;
Darkness; the distant wink of a huge gun.
In early summer of that year he went back home for a few weeks of leave and was back for the beginning of battle of the Somme, a five month ‘big push’ that began on July 1. Not much later he contracted dysentery and was sent back to Oxford to recover. Returned to the front in January of 1917, he was wounded in the neck and again sent back to England, where he sought out contact with Bertrand Russell and a small group of anti-war activists, including H.W. Massingham editor of the radical “The Nation.” His early enthusiasm for the war lost altitude each week at the front and in seeing while at home the unreality of public beliefs about it. He finally went public with his declaration against the War‘, on the 15th June 1917. Not only was it published, it was read out in the House of Commons. Threatened with court-martial, his friend and fellow soldier, Robert Graves, arranged assignment, and convinced him to go, to Craiglockhart Asylum in Scotland where he participated in the newly developing notions of talk-therapy for shell-shock under Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, and where he met Wilfred Owen, there for similar treatment.
It is these two years he writes of in his somewhat fictionalized “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer,” the middle volume of The Sherston Trilogy. Although it tracks his movements, in England and at the front, his changing perception of the war and introduces us to friends and other soldiers, all names have been changed. He, himself, is George Sherston. Robert Graves becomes David Cromlech, His mother, or at least some of her emotions, become part of Aunt Evelyn. Bertrand Russel is Thornton Tyrrell.
It’s an interesting read though, though not introspective and, for a war memoir — including ferocious fighting in two sections– it is surprisingly laconic. Even not having read the first volume, Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, we know: George Sherston is a British Gentleman, and one with the finer sensibilities. Fox hunting, yes, an obsession which he continues even during the war, but also, while at the front, he spends considerable time away from his men, meandering in nearby woods, contemplating the stars, reading, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
As an officer and writer, he maintains a certain observational distance. Just before his first combat, leading a raiding party days after his arrival, he tells of a Colonel issuing orders.
“He spoke with emphasis and he was not a man who expected to have to say things twice. We stared at one another for a moment; some freak of my brain made me remember that in peace time he had been an enthusiastic rose grower — had won prizes with his roses, in fact; for he was a married man and had lived in a little house near the barracks.”
He is a master of the irony which Paul Fussell (In The Great War and Modern Memory) identifies as one of the main social-linguistic changes brought about by the war especially, but not only, in the written word. Sassoon’s friend, Burley, while commenting on the military commanders says,
“… he hoped they learnt something since last autumn when they’d allowed the infantry to educate themselves at [the Battle of ] Loos, regardless of expense. “
Later, when he is invalided home, he writes of his Aunt Evelyn:
“It was her duty, as a patriotic Englishwoman, to agree with a certain prelate when he preached the axiom that ‘every man who killed a German was performing a Christian act.'”
As soon as he is able he joins the local gentlemen chasing the foxes with their hounds. ‘Only out of duty,’ some said:
“The game was being kept alive for the sake of the boys at the Front.”
Having the time, in convalescence he can read the British news.
“Somehow the newspaper men always kept the horrifying realities of the War out of their articles, for it was unpatriotic to be bitter, and the dead were assumed to be gloriously happy.”
On his second return to the war his observations become more acute:
“Most of those who came in now had joined the Army unwillingly, and there was no reason why they should find military service tolerable. The War had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman. What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims.”
He meets Robert Graves/David Cromlech, and is greatly impressed with him, more for his literary rebelliousness than military prowess. “I hadn’t realized that is was possible to speak disrespectfully about Milton.” And in his quiet honesty, can say about himself:
“I wanted the War to be an impressive experience — terrible, but not horrible enough to interfere with my heroic emotions. David on the other hand, distrusted sublimation and seemed to want the war to be even uglier than it really was.”
His progress towards denouncing the war was a slow walk, not a quick march. Even in March, 1917, after seeing much of what the war had brought and promised to continue bringing:
“I remember the invigorating freshness of the air and the delicate outlines of the landscape towards Ameins, and how I gazed at the line of tall trees by the river beyond which, not two miles away, was the village of Busy… At such a moment as that the War was quite a friendly affair and I could assure myself that being in the Infantry was much better than loafing about at home.”
When confronting gruesome death, irony is still his response:
“I noticed an English soldier lying by the road with a horribly smashed head; soon such sights would be too frequent to attract attention, but this first was was perceptibly unpleasant. At the risk of being thought squeamish or unsoldierly, I still maintain that an ordinary human being has a right to be momentarily horrified by a mangled body seen on an afternoon walk… I am no believer in wild denunciations of the War; I am merely describing my own experience of it; and in 1917 I was only beginning to learn that life, for the majority of the population, is an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral.” … The man with his head bashed in had achieved theoretical glory for dying for his country in the Battle of Arras, and we who marched past him had an excellent chance of following his example.”
After getting lost in the maze of trenches and having to pull back his platoon to get organized he says something which, being repeated by other soldier-writers in more recent wars, we must assume is a deep motivator of why men fight:
“It seemed to me, in my confused and exhausted condition, that I was at a crisis in my military career; and as usual, my main fear was that I should make a fool of myself.”
It was during his recovery from being shot through the throat that his final illumination came — and not because of the daily, gruesome horror of the shelling and barbed-wire and machine-guns. Even on the page where he writes of his revelation he writes:
“…apart from being shelled and so on, I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another, and one soon forgets the bad times; it’s probably something to do with being in the open air so much and getting such a lot of exercise… It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realized how stupid and wasteful it all is.”
What completely throws him is Massingham’s (Markington in the book) revelation at an interview in which Sassoon/Sherston inquires about writing something for “The Nation” from the soldier’s point of view:
“When I inquired whether any peace negotiations were being attempted, Markington said that England had been asked by the new Russian government, in April (1917) to state definitely her War Aims and to publish the secret treaties made between England and Russia early in the War. We had refused to state our terms or publish the treaties. “How damned rotten of us!” … Markington was bitter against the military castes in all countries … [so he] gloomily informed me that our Aims were essentially acquisitive, what we were fighting for was the Mesopotamian Oil Wells. A jolly swindle it would have been for me, if I’d been killed in April for an Oil Well!”
After a visit with Russell/Tyrrell, who asks if he knows what he’s getting himself into, Sassoon/Sherston proceeds, not without difficulty, and reports with the diffidence that pervades the book:
“During the struggle to put my unfusilierish opinions [Sassoon was serving with The Royal Welch Fusiliers] into some sort of shape, my confidence often diminished. But there was no relaxation of my inmost resolve, since I was in the species of a conversion which made the prospect of persecution stimulating and almost enjoyable.”
I tried to think internationally; the poor old Boches must be hating it just as much as we did; but I couldn’t propel my sympathy as far as the Balkan States, Turks, Italians, and all the rest of them; and somehow or other the French were just the French and too busy fighting and selling things to the troops to need my intervention. So I got back to thinking about “all the good chaps who’d been killed with the First and Second Battalions since I left them.”
Indeed, the heart of the letter, is his sense of betrayal:
“I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose 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 which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.”
Despite his fame — from the letter itself, and his subsequent poetry — the volume Counter Attack and Other Poems, [and Gutenberg copy, here] May 1918, is the best known, and enormously popular with soldiers– he never did fully join the anti-war people.
“One and all, they welcomed me to the Anti-War Movement, but I couldn’t quite believed that I had been assimilated. The reason for this feeling was their antipathy to everyone in uniform. I was still wearing mine, and somehow I was unable to dislike being a Flintshire Fusilier. This little psychological dilemma now seems almost too delicate to be divulged. In their eyes, I suppose, there was no credit attached to the fact of having been at the front; but for me it was a supremely important experience. I am obliged to admit that if these anti-war enthusiasts hadn’t happened to be likable I might have secretly despised them. Any man who had been on active service had an unfair advantage over those who hadn’t .
The memoir ends as he is threatened with a courts-martial and is instead sent to Craiglockhart, with the help of Graves, and out of respect for the Military Cross he had won early in his deployment.
“I’ve come to tell you that you’ve got to drop this anti-war business.”
“But I can’t drop it. Don’t you realize that I’m a man with a message?”
But David tells him that the Army won’t make a martyr out of him… “they would shut me up in a lunatic asylum for the rest of the War. Nothing would induce them to court martial me.”
So he agrees to be medical boarded, and the volume ends, to be taken up in the third, Sherston’s Progress, in which at Craiglockhart he meets the young Wilfred Owen and encourages him in his turn from Edwardian nature poetry to the powerful war poetry for which he is now known, Dulce et Decorum est, being only one of many to change the face of war poetry and perception.
Both Owen and Sassoon returned to France after their “rehabilitation” at Craiglockhart, at their own request. Both, however appalled at the war, felt enormous responsibility for the young “Tommy Atkins” under their commands. Sassoon was wounded again, apparently by “friendly fire,” evacuated and did not return. Owen was killed one week before the Armistice took effect.
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, will be of most interest to those whom Sassoon has affected, by his poetry, his life’s example, or indeed his later turn to devoted Catholicism. It serves also as a counter-balance to other, wilder, in-the-trenches memoirs, such as Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, an almost continuous account through experience and the stories of others, of mayhem and death in the trenches. We see that Sassoon, even while enjoying some parts of army, even war, could find himself at deepening odds with wide British support for the war, and find the courage to make his disagreement public, even, as he says, welcoming the stimulation of the prospect of persecution.
In fact, he is, in his opposition an interesting lesson to those who come to oppose war and think what they might do. He was never a raging radical. He had nothing of the outrage of Russell or say, Sylvia Pankhurst.
He doesn’t interrogate himself much, or provide anything in the way of his arguments with himself or, his family, over his decision. It comes as somewhat of a surprise to those who have known him as a war/anti-war poet to hear that his break came not so much from his witness of the war, however graphic his poetic images, but the fact that he felt lied to; that he’d become a soldier in good faith, to uphold values of defending smaller Belgium against powerful Germany, to answer the call of courage and valor, and that faith had been punctured. Perhaps the war had begun for reasons he, and millions, had believed but soon, different aims were agreed on by those in command, and kept secret from those in the trenches. Betrayal destroys trust.
His effect on others came from a poetry that spoke truth to power. Moving away from the high diction of Edwardian verse he found a voice that resonated with the common soldier who, carrying editions of his poetry, knew he had seen what they had seen, He was one of them, but one who would be heard in the halls of power. He took the daring step of denouncing not only the war but the honesty of those in power who urged it on, refusing to negotiate. That he did not carry out his protest as he sometimes imagined, letting himself be ‘compromised’ without a fight, and then to go back and pick up weapons he had denounced makes him, to my mind, a valuable example of doing what can be done. He was an ordinary hero, pushing beyond what he had once accepted and saying so, stepping into the unknown. Though it is unlikely his action risked more than prison there were certainly hundreds (in all armies) being shot for not much more.
He didn’t call for the end of all war; that would be too far a reach. He called for the end to the lies from which the motivation for ordinary people to give their lives was spun. Stop the lies, tell the truth about the goals and battle lines, and we’ll decide.
Counter Attack, the poem….
We’d gained our first objective hours before
While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,
Pallid, unshaved and thirsty, blind with smoke.
Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,
With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,
And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps;
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!
A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,
Staring across the morning blear with fog;
He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,
While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.
He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,
Sick for escape,—loathing the strangled horror
And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.
An officer came blundering down the trench:
“Stand-to and man the fire-step!” On he went …
Gasping and bawling, “Fire-step … counter-attack!”
Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
“O Christ, they’re coming at us!” Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle … rapid fire …
And started blazing wildly … then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans …
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.