combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 06 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2008

Posted Muster
a biographical sketch

"Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory."
by Benjamin Disraeli (1832)
"Biography is the only true history."
by Thomas Carlyle (1832)
"There is properly no history, only biography."
by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)

A Fox-Hunting Man
      Siegfried Loraine Sassoon

He was a fox hunter who became a soldier. He was a war hero who became a pacifist. His literary importance far overshadowed his military impact. He was a poet trapped in a nightmare of mud and death. Faced with this environment his poems gave an increasingly realistic and satirical view of the horrors of World War I. Even there his greatest literary legacy was his influence on the work of another poet. He was Siegfried Sassoon.

He sympathized with his men and was appalled by the slaughter that marked trench warfare in World War I. He watched men die and watched their spirits break. He saw fear drive men to violent panic and quiet catatonia. To paraphrase William Butler Yeats from another context, Sassoon was "changed, changed utterly" as a "terrible beauty" was born in the outraged sympathetic irony of his later war poems.

Born of a well-to-do family, Sassoon was perhaps the most innocent of the young men who would become known as Great Britain's War Poets. Sassoon had lived a life of leisure on a moderate income, playing cricket and publishing private editions of his poems. He enlisted before his enlistment as a trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry two days before Great Britain entered World War I. However, he broke his arm in a hunting accident before he could get into the war. In May 1915 he became a commissioned officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He finally arrived in France in November.

The war he saw in the trenches was far different from anything the young romantic scribbler had ever seen in his quiet life in rural England or even the mob and press of London. The vastness of the tragedy began to engulf him.

Joining his regiment in France, Sassoon met fellow poet Robert Graves. They spent many hours reading each other's work and discussing theories of poetry. These discussions helped Sassoon adapt the "gritty realism" which was to supplant the prewar romanticism that had previously shaped his verse. These poems had been typical of the end of the Romantic era, hymns of almost stupefied worshipfulness of idyllic settings. This attitude carried over into his first war poems. In "Secret Music" Sassoon wrote:

I keep such music in my brain
No din this side of death can quell;
Glory exulting over pain,
And beauty, garlanded in hell.

Just as he arrived in France Sassoon was emotionally wounded by the death of his brother Hammo at Gallipoli on 1 November 1915. The horrors and misery he saw around him on the front deepened Sassoon's depression. Perhaps to compensate, he repeatedly undertook actions showing great personal courage. He volunteered for night patrols and undertook expeditions on his own. At the same time he remained concerned about his men's welfare.

This concern made him an efficient and well-liked commander who was able to get the best out of his men. At the same time he lived in torment. He began to see his men's faith in him as a mark of the depths to which he had betrayed them. He was full of contradictions. His men called him "Mad Jack" for his ferocity. His fellow officers remembered him for his calm under fire.

Even as his faith in the necessity and the sanity of the war vanished he continued to fight like a man possessed. He was quick to volunteer for dangerous assignments and undertook many night patrols and bombing (grenade) attacks in no-man's land. At this point he still believed the Germans were responsible for the misery of the war and sought revenge.

His near-suicidal exploits were punctuated by periods of almost inhuman calm. Following a successful attack on German entrenchments, Sassoon was seen sitting quietly reading a book of poetry as the battle continued around him.

Sassoon's quest for revenge deepened and his exploits became more crazed. He went on patrol when none were scheduled. He was sent to the rear for four weeks at the Army School in Flixecourt and when he returned he seemed to have calmed a little. When Sassoon's platoon joined a raid on Kiel Trench shortly afterwards, his actions in getting his dead and wounded men back to the British trenches earned him a Military Cross, which he received at the start of July 1916.

Immediately afterwards he was in action at the Battle of the Somme. On 4 July, the Fusiliers were in an advanced bombing post in captured German trenches and were suffering from sniper fire. He crawled forward to a nearby section of trench still held by Germans and threw four Mills bombs into it. He was surprised to see fifty or more Germans abandon the trench and dash for the safety of the Mametz Wood.

Sassoon was recommended for another decoration but none was awarded because of difficulties capturing the Mametz Wood, which was not taken till 12 July at the cost of 4000 casualties.

Sassoon's apparent calm was illusory. Sassoon was deeply troubled and in the summer of 1917 the dam holding back his despair at the conduct of the war and the resultant wasted lives finally broke. Reflection on the death of his friend David Cuthbert Thomas may have influenced the radical action Sassoon took. Thomas had been shot in the neck 18 March 1916 by a German sniper during fighting in the trenches.

The young officer thereafter spent a good amount of time on convalescent leave. In late July of 1916 he was sent home for trench fever or enteritis and did not return to France until February 1917. Back in France for two days he contracted German Measles and did not return to duty till 11 March. He spent two days in the Hindenburg tunnel during heavy fighting and then in the Second Battle of the Scarpe was wounded and returned to England.

Sassoon had changed. He no longer saw the Germans as the villains, or at least not as the only villains in this great tragedy. On 19 June 1917, Sassoon wrote in his diary, "I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingoes define it as 'an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb'. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts .... And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes. The soldiers who return home seem stunned by the things they have endured .... If only they would speak out and throw their medals in the faces of their masters; and ask their women why it thrills them to know that they, the dauntless warriors, have shed the blood of Germans."

Sassoon became determined that he would make a point. This passage quoted by Robert Nichols in his introduction to Sassoon's book, Counter-Attack, sums up Sassoon's battlefield-tempered position on war: "Now let us never say another word of whatever little may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled. Let no one ever from henceforth in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantage."

Convalescing from a wound received earlier in 1917, Sassoon declined return to duty in a July "declaration" that was prepared with the assistance of Bertrand Russell and John Middleton Murry. The carefully worded statement was published in Bradford Pioneer on 27 July. It was read to the British House of Commons on 30 July, and printed in the London Times 31 July. The text of the declaration follows:

Lt. Siegfried Sassoon
3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers
July 1917

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 the 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 which 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 prolonging 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 fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they do not have enough imagination to realise.

There can be no doubt this declaration was made on behalf of his men and was not a failure of personal courage. Even after the war Sassoon spoke with great empathy of the men under his command. Again quoting Nichols, "Sassoon spoke most of the war and of the men who fought it. Always with a rapid, tumbling enunciation and a much-irked desperate air filled with pain – (he spoke) of soldiers. For the incubus of war is on him so that his days are shot with anguish and his nights with horror."

Sassoon also followed the advice of his diary entry and threw the ribbon from his Military Cross in the River Mersey. He was certain he would be court-martialed but the strength of his beliefs and his willingness to sacrifice himself to make what he saw as a crucial point propelled him forward in his defiance of the war.

His friends did not see things quite his way. Graves pulled strings and made pleas and convinced the authorities Sassoon was mentally ill, suffering from shell shock. Instead of a court martial he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.

While at the hospital Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a 2nd lieutenant in the 5th Battalion, Manchester Regiment. Sassoon as a man and as a poet impressed Owen, who was also diagnosed with shellshock.

Sassoon wrote a great deal at the Edinburgh hospital, poems that would later appear in Counter-Attack. More importantly, Owen and Sassoon talked about poetry a great deal and about their attitudes toward the war. These conversations infused Owen's work with a new realism and a cutting bitterness that combined to produce perhaps the greatest English poetry to emerge from any war.

Owen's later poems such as "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est," brought a tremendous beauty of language to the horrors of trench warfare. Sassoon's own realistic efforts never reached the level of Owen's last poems. Owen died on 4 November 1918, a week before the Armistice.

Owen's esteem for Sassoon bordered on hero worship. In a letter to his mother, Owen described himself as "not worthy to light his (Sassoon's) pipe."

Sassoon's psychiatrist, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, convinced him over a period of four months that his protest had done no good. Realizing he had achieved nothing but separation from his men, Sassoon applied to return to duty. He was posted to the Regimental Depot in November 1917. He joined the 25th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusilier in Palestine in February, 1918.

Owen, who had left the hospital, was devastated by Sassoon's return to duty, particularly when his friend's battalion was sent to France some three months later. Sassoon was shot in the head by "friendly fire," during a trench raid. He was sent back to England to recover.

Although he could have remained on home duty until the end of the war, Owen felt someone was needed to relate the horrors of the front to the reading public and applied to return to combat as a replacement for Sassoon's voice. This dedication to what he saw as his duty led to his death.

Sassoon was put on convalescent leave till 1919 when he resigned from the Army. He spent the years after the war meeting important literary figures from Thomas Hardy to T. E. Lawrence. He wrote six volumes of autobiography. The first three, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, were based on Sassoon's outdoor persona. The first volume, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man was published under a pseudonym because Sassoon was unsure of the public response to prose from a poet. Although he wrote poetry after the war he is most noted for his prose output during this period.

He married Hester Gatty in 1933 and their son, George, was born in 1938. The marriage ended in 1945. He joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1957. He was awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry in the same year. He died in 1967.

[further reading:
of Siegfried Sassoon poems at Poem Hunter website;
poems of Wilfred Owen at Oxford war poem website]

contributed by Jess C. Henderson

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