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The War Poets: Siegfried Sassoon

Poetry

During his formative years, Siegfried Sassoon lived the life of an affluent young Englishman. Despite his Germanic-Iraqi name (his mother loved Wagnerian operas, his father was a descendant of the famous Jewish Baghdad dynasty), Sassoon enjoyed a typical upper-class education at Marlborough and Cambridge. He then spent seven years playing cricket, hunting and writing poetry.

Motivated by patriotism and a desire to end this long state of ennui, he joined the army the day before the war broke out, in August 1914. As one of his biographers, Rupert Hart-Davis, wrote, ‘It was the terrible impact of the Western Front that turned him from a versifier into a poet.’

Almost immediately after joining up, he broke his arm badly in a riding accident, which postponed him taking up of his commission in the Royal Welch (sic) Fusiliers until May 1915. He first saw action on the Western Front six months later, becoming known as a brave if somewhat risk-taking officer. Refused the VC, he was nevertheless awarded the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ in June 1916.

He started writing war poetry immediately on arriving at the Front and these opening lines from 'The Prince of Wounds' were typical of his early literary efforts.

The Prince of wounds is with us here;
Wearing his crown he gazes down,
Sad and forgiving and austere.

He showed these lyrical poems to his battle-weary friend, Robert Graves, who told him that the war would make him change his style. Graves was right. From mid-July 1916, after having served several months in the trenches, the now bitter and mocking tone which we associate with Sassoon’s poetry today became his forte. No longer did he write about the ‘woeful crimson of men slain’ (To Victory) but about ‘​dead men, bloody-fingered from the fight’ (The Road). Nor would he describe Christ as ‘guarding immitigable loss’, which he had written in 'The Prince of Wounds'. Now in 'Christ and the Soldier', Christ was held responsible for the pain and the death: ‘O Christ Almighty, stop this bleeding fight!’

Even though Sassoon spent several long periods away from the Front, due to wounds, being invalided home with trench fever and being sent to Ireland and Palestine, this did not prevent him from attacking the political establishment. He saw this as responsible for prolonging the war, and therefore the suffering of his fellow soldiers.

While on leave in summer 1917, Sassoon protested twice against the war: publicly throwing his medal ribbon into the Mersey and writing his famous anti-war declaration.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it… I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to those sufferings which I believe to be evil and unjust.’

This appeared in The Times and was read out in Parliament. As a result, Sassoon was considered unfit for service and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh to recover from ‘shell shock’. There, he met Wilfred Owen and exercised a great influence over the latter’s later war poems.

In November 1917, Sassoon was passed fit for service. He was sent to Ireland where he served until February 1918 and was then transferred to Palestine as part of General Allenby’s army. He hated it there and described Jerusalem as ‘not a very holy-looking place’ and referred to the natives as ‘Hebrews’. His vague Jewish connections through his father meant nothing to him.

After three months in Palestine, Sassoon returned to the Western Front. Soon afterwards he was accidentally shot in the head one night by one of his own sentries and spent the remainder of the war in hospital in London. He thus survived the war and spent much of the rest of his life writing about his wartime experiences in poems and bestselling autobiographical novels.

Today, Sassoon is best remembered for his biting poetical attacks on the officers and generals who sped ‘glum heroes up the line to death’ and ‘told the poor dear [mother of fallen soldier] some gallant lies.’ At the same time, he attacked the civilians who could not understand the depth of the soldiers’ suffering, ‘You smug-faced crowds…you’ll never know/ The Hell where youth and laughter go.’ But Sassoon not only attacked, he also empathized with the agony of his fellow-soldier as he ‘died,/Blown to small bits. And no-one seemed to care.’
 

About the author

David Lawrence-Young now lives in Jerusalem, having moved to Israel in 1968. He served sixteen years in the Israeli army reserves. He has spent most of his time as a teacher and lecturer. He has written eighteen historical novels and his MA thesis was on WW1 poetry.
 

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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