Siegfried Sassoon

I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. -- Siegfried Sassoon

English poet and author Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) is best known for his satirical anti-war poetry of the First World War.

Sassoon was born in the village of Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother. His father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon (1867-1895) (son of Sassoon David Sassoon), came from the wealthy Indian Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family but was disinherited for marrying outside the faith. His mother, Theresa, belonged to the Thornycroft family, sculptors responsible for many of the best-known statues in London.

Sassoon was educated at The New Beacon Preparatory School, Kent, Marlborough College in Wiltshire (at Cotton House, Marlborough College), and at Clare College, Cambridge, (of which he was made an honorary fellow in 1953) where he studied both law and history from 1905 to 1907. However, he dropped out of university without a degree and spent the next few years indulging himself with hunting, playing cricket and privately publishing a few volumes of not very highly acclaimed poetry. His income was just enough to prevent his having to seek work, but not enough to live extravagantly.

Sassoon joined the military 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 at Gallipoli (Rupert Brooke, whom Siegfried had briefly met, died on the way there).

He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer and in November, he was sent to First Battalion in France. It was here he befriended Robert Graves and they became close friends.

He soon became horrified by the realities of war. His writings reflects what he saw around him, he conveyed back home the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propaganda. Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time

Although disgusted by what he saw, Sassoon's periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. 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.

In June 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for assisting a wounded man back to the British lines while under enemy fire. Sassoon was himself wounded in April 1917 and was sent back to England for recuperation. His growing sense of unease and disgust concerning the conduct of the war that led him to publish a letter in The Times suggesting that the war was being deliberately prolonged by the authorities. As a decorated war hero and published poet, this caused public outrage.

Sassoon's hostility to war was also reflected in his poetry. During the war Sassoon developed a harshly satirical style that he used to attack the incompetence and inhumanity of senior military officers. These poems caused great controversy when they were published in The Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter-Attack (1918).

Expecting a court martial, the intervention of Robert Graves altered events so that he was deemed to be suffering from shell shock and so was sent to the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Scotland to recover. It was while at Craiglockhart that Sassoon met and formed a friendship with Wilfred Owen.

Before returning to service Sassoon threw the ribbon from his Military Cross into the river Mersey. In May 2007, the medal turned up in an attic at the house in Mull where his son had lived. The medal has been bought by the Royal Welch Fusiliers for display at their museum in Caernarfon. [see War poet's medal turns up in attic]

Despite his public attacks on the way the war was being managed, Sassoon, like Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, agreed to continue to fight.

Eventually Sassoon was well enough to return to active duty and was posted to Palestine for a short time before returning to the Western Front. It was here that he was accidentally shot by one of his own men while returning from a patrol which effectively ended his wartime active service, during which he was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross.

After the war Sassoon spent a brief period as literary editor of the Daily Herald before going to the United States on a speaking tour.

Over the next thirty years Sassoon wrote three semi-autobiographical works, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston's Progress (1936). This was followed by three volumes of autobiography, The Old Century (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942) and Siegfried's Journey (1945).

Siegfried Sassoon is one of the sixteen Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey in London. The inscription on the stone was written by friend and fellow War poet Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."

William Brodrick in his powerful and moving novel A Whispered Name (2008) set in the Great War makes good use of lines from 'How To Die' by Siegfried Sassoon.

Literature ~ Laurence Binyon
(c) Keith Parkins 2009 -- February 2009 rev 0