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Siegfried Sassoon
   



     

SIEGFRIED SASSOON

1. The importance of Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon was one of the first writers brave enough to use poetry to describe war as it really is: brutalising, destructive, horrific, and an indefensible waste of human lives.

Earlier poets certainly recognised the sadness of war ('the flowers of the forest are withered away'). But they didn't question its association with heroism and glory. Even Siegfried Sassoon's first war poems, written before he had experienced war at first hand, showed he hadn't yet shaken off an old-fashioned romantic view of it.

ABSOLUTION
The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

This was how 19th century readers and writers, especially those from a privileged background, viewed the life of 'the fighting man'. 'Warriors' were 'heroes', war was a 'heroic struggle' of 'good against evil'; 'the foe' must be 'vanquished' by 'noble deeds' on the battlefield under a flag tattered by gunshot but still 'valiantly' flying.

Many young men like Siegfried Sassoon went into the First World War with this kind of idealism. The carnage they found there came as a tremendous shock: the way modern war was fought was different - and horrifying. In 1915 Sassoon showed fellow-poet Robert Graves a poem he had written. It began
Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,
Not in the woeful crimson of men slain...
Robert Graves, at 20, was ten years younger than Sassoon, but had been at the front line for some time. 'Siegfried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my old-soldier manner, that he would soon change his style.' Graves was right.

2. Siegfried Sassoon's early experiences
Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 and brought up to be a conventional 'English country gentleman'. He went to a public school and, for a short time, university, but he wasn't a keen student. What he really enjoyed was outdoor sport: from an early age he loved playing cricket and horse-riding, and later he took up golf as well. He was always a dreamer and a poet, too, deeply attached to nature and the countryside he lived in.

Although he joined up in 1914, he was not sent to the front until the following year. His spells there were interrupted throughout the war: he was wounded twice and also contracted a fever from which laid him low for over six months. His memoirs show how troubling and confusing it was to be in the midst of noise, devastation and death - and then transported (whether ill, wounded or on leave) to the serenity of the English countryside for recovery and rest, before returning to the hell of war again. But it was this contrast that began to make him angry: he got to learn at first hand how little the people at home understood what the soldiers were suffering, so appallingly and so pointlessly, abroad. (One well-known novelist even wrote to him saying, 'we civilians are better able to judge the war as a whole than you soldiers'.)

What soldiers suffered knocked all the grand ideals and flowery language out of Sassoon's poetry. War, he wrote, 'had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman. What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims.' Now he had to express the inhumanity of war in his poems.

ATTACK
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glowering sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

3. 'Siegfried's war on war'
Something else that made Siegfried Sassoon angry was the callous unawareness of the army chiefs who made the battle plans, the 'scarlet majors' who 'speed glum heroes up the line to death', who casually speak of having 'lost heavily in the last scrap' and think of numbers, not individual men.

So what a friend called 'Siegfried's splendid war on the war' was two-fold: against the generals sitting over their maps well out of danger, and against the 'home front'. He particularly disliked government propaganda aimed at gaining the new recruits needed to fill the gaps made by the many thousands of men already killed. It depicted the war as a worthwhile cause to join, a sacrificial duty to fulfil: a call to battle, it implied, which only cowards would refuse.

He also loathed the way pacifism, which was what he now saw was the worthwhile cause, was spoken of as 'cowardice' and 'betrayal' - especially when such things were said by women. It was to women he addressed a poem which begins

'You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace...'

The 'decorations' that women 'worshipped' were military awards for bravery. In his first days on the front line, Siegfried Sassoon had earned the nickname 'Mad Jack' for his reckless boldness. After helping to bring in wounded men while under fire himself, he was awarded the Military Cross. That was in 1915. In 1917, just recovered from fever and based in a garrison near Liverpool, he threw his Military Cross ribbon into the river Mersey, to express his disgust with war.

'Weighted with significance though this action was,' he wrote, 'it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly on to the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility...Watching a big boat which was steaming along the horizon, I realised that protesting against the prolongation of the war was about as much use as shouting at the people on board that ship.'

4. The Statement signed 'S. Sassoon'
All the same, he did protest. He took a stand against the war by publicly declaring he would no longer fight in it - and caused a storm.

In July 1917 he made a written statement about his objection to the war and gave it to his commanding officer. He also refused to return to the front line, though he knew that he risked court martial and severe punishment. (Some soldiers at the front who refused to fight had even been executed.)

Here are some of the words of Siegfried Sassoon's 'Statement':

'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 have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong those 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 on them.
Also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.'

Hansard | text of debate

 

Siegfried Sassoon certainly didn't realise how much he had alarmed the authorities: so much so that they regarded a court martial, and the publicity that would go with it, as out of the question. Sassoon and his action must be hurried out of sight, in case other men 'caught' his dangerous 'pacifist tendency' and also refused to fight.

At this point, Robert Graves intervened. He meant well: he knew that his friend was too physically weakened by wounds and illness to survive punishment. As he saw it, a practical solution was needed. So, one way and another, sometimes deviously, Graves persuaded the authorities that Sassoon was too mentally and physically unwell to face punishment ('the irony of having to argue to these mad old men that Siegfried was not sane!'). He also persuaded Siegfried himself to 'drop this anti-war business', on the grounds that his protest was in vain: whatever he did the war would go on 'until one side or the other cracked' - meanwhile he would simply be accused of cowardice and his pacifism dismissed as lunacy.

A panel of army doctors quickly decreed that Siegfried Sassoon was 'suffering from a nervous breakdown and not responsible for his actions', and sent him off to a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers.

But the publicity the army feared wasn't entirely suppressed. A pacifist Member of Parliament read Sassoon's 'Statement' aloud in the House of Commons. There was an uproar. [Commons debate or Hansard original]

A few months later a railway passenger found a copy of the Statement stuffed in a luggage rack. The passenger - no pacifist - sent it to the politician responsible for army recruitment, who passed it on to military intelligence. Here there was great agitation: was there a pacifist mass campaign going on, distributing mutinous leaflets? 'Lieutenant Sassoon was undoubtedly the author, but when it was written he was a lunatic. It seems possible that pacifists are circulating Sassoon's insane efforts.' Sassoon's file - it still exists - was marked 'Not to be destroyed': 'it refers to a person of international importance'.

5. Hospital and afterwards
In hospital in Scotland, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen for the first time, and encouraged him in writing his poetry against war. He also made friends with the perceptive and wise psychologist Dr Rivers, who knew that Siegfried wasn't shell-shocked but put no pressure on him to change his mind. Otherwise he found himself feeling very out of place. 'I hadn't broken down, I'd only broken out.'

Now he began to feel that it was wrong for him to be in safe seclusion while his fellow-soldiers were enduring the horrors of the war. There was no way of foreseeing when the war would stop. Why should he, rather than the men he had been standing up for, be protected from the risk of being killed?

There was something else troubling Sassoon as well. He didn't want his resistance to war to be thought of as the belief of a man not in his right mind. Returning to the front seemed to be the only way to avoid that. He was boxed in. (A similar dilemma is a famous feature of Joseph Heller's Second World War novel 'Catch-22'. Bomber pilots could only escape from their death-flights if they were listed as insane. Wanting to escape flying wasn't insane, so orders to fly continued. )

So Sassoon was passed fit and went back to the front in February 1918 - 'and again,' he wrote, 'became part of the war machine which needed so much flesh and blood to keep it working'.

But he didn't stop writing and publishing poems against the war. One of them, called 'I stood with the dead', was printed in a left-wing magazine in July 1918. The last verse describes the poet standing among the corpses on the battlefield, bitterly lamenting that soldiers were paid to stand in line to kill and die.

I stood with the dead...They were dead, they were dead.
My heart and my head beat a march of dismay
And gusts of the wind came dulled by the guns.
'Fall in!' I shouted, 'Fall in for your pay!'

An army chief who happened to read this poem wrote angrily to the editor of the magazine: 'If Lieutenant Sassoon is now writing verse like this, his mind is still in chaos and he is not fit to be trusted with men's lives'.... He wanted to be told when the poem had been received by the editor. Had it been written while Sassoon was in hospital, and officially 'mentally disturbed', or later, when he might be liable for court martial? Not surprisingly, the editor said he didn't know.

It was also in July 1918 that Siegfried Sassoon incautiously raised his head above an embankment, without his tin hat, and was shot - by one of his own men (who was devastated when he realised what he'd done). This time the wounded Sassoon went back to England for good.

He recovered from the gunshot wound, but the war's mental damage lasted. 'How could I begin my life all over again when I had no conviction about anything except that the war was a dirty trick which had been played on me and my generation?' Nightmares and memories plagued him, and a restless sense of futility was hard to shake off. He also suffered, as so many survivors of war suffer, from difficulty in personal relationships; he was often deeply lonely.

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 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.

6. Afterword.
After the war Siegfried Sassoon edited and promoted Wilfred Owen's poems, and ensured the dead man's lasting fame. He became involved in left-wing politics, edited a left-wing newspaper, and wrote his autobiographies. He was a sponsor of the Peace Pledge Union until his death in 1967.

Near the end of oneof his memoirs, published in 1936, Sassoon wrote bitterly: 'It seemed that I had learned but one thing from being a soldier - that if we continue to accept war as a social institution...militarism must be taught to children in schools. They must be taught to offer their finest instincts for exploitation by the unpitying machinery of scientific warfare. And they must not be allowed to ask why they are doing it.'

Are we aware - aware enough - that militarism is indeed being 'taught', today, even if in disguise? We need the writings of Siegfried Sassoon, and of other people who show how wrong and destructive war is, to keep us alert. In one way and another we're being told every day that war can be right and necessary. It isn't, and, like Siegfried Sassoon, we must look for ways to say so.

(You can also read about Siegfried Sassoon in Robert Graves' part-autobiographical story 'Goodbye to All That', and in Pat Barker's novel 'Regeneration', which has also been made into a film. Two of Sassoon's autobiographies dealing entirely with the war are 'Memoirs of an Infantry Officer' and 'Sherston's Progress'.)

 

 

 

'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.

 

 

 

- Sassoon's importance
- Early experiences
- 'War on war'
- Statement
- Hospital and afterwards
- Afterword
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