Siegfried Sassoon: Innocence Lost in the Trenches of the Great War

by JoHarrington

Decorated for bravery, Siegfried Sassoon changed the war poetry genre forever. His verses gave voice to a disillusioned generation of WWI soldiers.

The British Government would have shot dead Siegfried Sassoon, but for fear of a revolution. He was too popular. He practically wore the Mark of Cain.

MPs on both sides of the House breathed a sigh of relief, when his friend Robert Graves suggested Sassoon be deemed mad instead. 'Suffering from shell-shock' took the sting from the poet's treasonous sentiments, and put him safely away in a sanitarium.

But Siegfried Sassoon was not insane. He was just saying loudly what so many of his fellows on the Western Front were thinking.

His story was their story, and so he could keep on telling it, he ensured his return to the trenches instead.

Heritage of the Heart: The War Poetry of Siegfried Sassoon

Homosexual, rich and naive, Sassoon wasn't the obvious choice to became the voice of a battling nation. But his shock transcended social barriers to be shared by all.

Despite the name, Siegfried Sassoon was British through and through. His mother just liked Wagner's Ring Cycle, of which Siegfried is the third opera.

He was born, on September 8th 1886, in Matfield, Kent to a very wealthy family. His background would have been even more privileged, but for the fact that his Jewish father had been mostly disinherited for marrying a Catholic.

Nevertheless, Siegfried Sassoon lived in a mansion, enjoyed a private school education and never needed to work a day in his life.

Hence it's even more remarkable that he grew to become the spokesperson of a jaded generation. The vast majority of which had been raised in poverty, yet still found plenty of common ground with the well-born boy.

Mud is a great leveler.

Like many young men of his class and social standing, Siegfried Sassoon enlisted as soon as the Great War seemed inevitable. He was already in uniform (albeit brand new) when war was declared and Big Ben fell silent.

In the four years that passed before the great bell tolled again, the poet would undergo a complete change in ethos and philosophy. It was this traumatic journey of emotion and mind that caused millions of fighting men to identify with him.

Like so many early enlistees, Siegfried was gung-ho about going to war. He was a gentle soul, prone to seeing the beauty in everything, and didn't really have any concept of what lay in store for him.

His sheltered upbringing meant that he'd never really suffered any hardship.

Moreover, it had induced an idealism about war, born of endless fantasy books about legendary warriors, or the sanitized history books glorifying real ones.

As his early poem Absolution made clear, he now saw himself as one of those brave, gallant knights, marching off to beat the baddies and save the day.

Siegfried Sassoon is generally seen as the great innocent of the First World War poets. But it was an innocence soon lost, replaced by fury channeled into stanzas.

Absolution

One of Sassoon's earliest war poems.

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?

Biographies about Siegfried Sassoon

An article such as this cannot do justice to a life so vividly felt and richly recorded. Check out these life histories of Siegfried Sassoon for more.

How Siegfried Sassoon Changed the Art of War Poetry

John Hildebidle called him an 'accidental hero'. A poet with the eloquence to state the situation as it was, and the courage to broadcast the truth against the world.

There were war poets before Siegfried Sassoon. As long as armies have squared up against each other upon a battlefield, bards have been there to pen verses about victory and loss.

But they tended towards the heroic.

It was all patriotism and glory, the Light Brigade charging or Paul Revere riding desperately through the night. The emotion was there, but framed in such a way to stir the spirit and urge others to follow in their footsteps.

There had been war poems that could break a reader's heart when read with all due imagination. Aneirin's Y Gododdin, written circa 600 CE, would bring tears to the hardiest soul. But the horror was generally muted by metaphor, and its soldiers seemed fantastical.

You would have to read between the lines to fully appreciate the scenes that inspired such verses.

But these were the sort of war poems that had so misled the youthful Siegfried Sassoon, leading him to imagine that the Great War would be a jolly adventure, over by Christmas.

He was determined that his own words would do nothing of the sort.

Realism was Siegfried Sassoon's great contribution to the genre. He made it real and refused to back down into platitudes. Blood, guts and artillery fire are all present in his telling.

People back home, who'd never fully imagined a battlefield, could suddenly taste, hear and smell it. They could touch the armaments and the mud. They saw as he had seen, and felt every emotion alongside him.

After Sassoon, war poetry could never again speak of 'wilting flowers' instead of carnage, nor 'heroic duty' in place of men sent to their deaths.

He went further than that. He called out as fakes all those previous poets, who'd written glorious verses for their cause. He berated the unfeeling and the gullible, who quoted such things in all ignorance.

From now on, any war poem which took as its theme the greatness of battle could be called into question. It read as propaganda.

Truth and the telling of truth in war became Siegfried Sassoon's mission. He was evangelical about his literary calling.

In a British hospital, he met and mentored Wilfred Owen. Today Owen is probably Britain's most famous war poet of all, but he was unknown back then.

We know of him because Sassoon encouraged him to write, then spent the next about thirty years publicizing Owen's work.

The message was more important than enduring fame, and Sassoon knew Owen to be the better poet. He believed that if enough people understood the horrors of war, no other could ever be fought again.

Aftermath

Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.

Suicide in the Trenches by Siegfried Sassoon

Read by British actor Stephen Graham, this poem was published in Sassoon's 1918 collection of his First World War poetry.

First World War Poems by Siegfried Sassoon

Decorating Siegfried Sassoon: The Poet as War Hero

Sassoon's acts of outrageous bravery often bordered upon the suicidal, or the bizarre. He once read poetry in a trench filled with German bodies.

Image: Siegfried SassoonWhile Sassoon's brand of lyrical realism made him the darling of those living the literal reality, it understandably rendered him a thorn in the side of the War Office.

They urgently needed people to enlist, in order to become 'part of the war machine which needed so much flesh and blood to keep it working' (as Siegfried put it).

His popular poems didn't exactly sell the idea.

However, everyone could be impressed with Siegfried Sassoon's heroic exploits on the battlefield. The administration happily pinned medals upon him. His brothers in arms received yet another story to recount in their dug outs, some in wonder, some in awe, some in wondering what the Hell just happened.

Sassoon entered the Great War expecting to be a storybook hero. His idealism may have quickly drowned in flooded trench water and blood, but an echo of it remained in the way he conducted solo acts of gallantry. He became his own legendary figure.

He was awarded a Military Cross when, on May 26th, 1916, he remained out in the open and under fire in France. There were British men lying wounded and/or dying, and Siegfried wouldn't rest until he'd dragged every one of them to safety.

Yet there was also a recklessness to his behavior, which could - in some lights - be seen as a wish to permanently end his experience of war.

After his brother Hamo and Siegfried's friend David Thomas were both killed in battle, he took to 'patrolling' No Man's Land alone. He escaped unscathed, but it was enough to worry his commanding officers into sending him home on leave.

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!

On another notable occasion, Siegfried became incensed by the death of a close friend standing alongside him.

Sassoon charged alone across No Man's Land towards a Hindenburg Line trench, armed only with hand grenades. The 50-60 German soldiers inside it could not have seen him. They were all killed.

But then Sassoon climbed into the trench. He lifted the body of a young soldier - whom he estimated to be about eighteen years old - and stared for a while at his face.

Satisfied that he was indeed looking at fellow human beings, not monsters, Siegfried Sassoon sat down in the enemy trench. He took out a book of poetry and read it for two hours.

When he returned, he didn't even report his taking of the trench. He didn't want another medal.

Finished with the War: The Pacifism of Siegfried Sassoon

In 1917, Sassoon was in real danger of being shot at dawn. Not by the German army, but by a firing squad of his own side under orders from the British government.

Image: Siegfried Sassoon's Anti-War LetterInconvenient truths in poetry and uncomfortably strange heroics were one thing, but in 1917, Siegfried Sassoon crossed a line that the British government could not easily overlook.

Devastated by yet another death - this time his friend David Cuthbert - and egged on by philosopher Bertrand Russell, Sassoon suddenly embraced the tenets of pacifism.

He threw the ribbon from his Military Cross into the River Mersey. Then found a depressing symbolism in the fact that it was too lightweight to sink in those mighty tidal waters.

In a letter sent to his commanding officer, and read out in the House of Commons, he accused the British establishment of secret hawkishness.

Government and generals alike were prolonging hostilities unnecessarily, at the cost of millions of lives and misery. They were peddling 'a war of defence and liberation', which was really one of 'aggression and conquest'. In consequence, Sassoon wrote that he was 'finished with the war' and hereby resigned his commission.

Had he been anybody else, Siegfried would have risked court martial. The penalty for which ranged from imprisonment with hard labor through to being shot at dawn. There were certainly isolated MPs irritated into calling for the latter.

But cooler minds prevailed, spelling out precisely the dilemma which David Lloyd George's government now faced.

Siegfried Sassoon was just too popular, too well-known. He was a decorated hero, who had exhibited startling courage under fire. His poetry touched chords in the national psyche, which no politician could ever hope to achieve.

If punished, they risked a backlash from the British population. If left unchecked, there was a strong possibility that the poet's talent could be used to further the arguments of pacifism, while undermining public trust in the government.

For a moment there, it seemed that the former was the lesser of two evils.

His friend, and fellow poet, Robert Graves came up with a solution. To the annoyance of Siegfried himself, the suggestion was made that he was suffering from shell-shock. The panicking British government immediately grabbed the compromise. Sassoon was sectioned and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers, as if he really was thus afflicted.

Meanwhile the media were led to publicize his 'condition', thus enacting damage limitation in public relations. All that the poet had written and said could now be dismissed as 'insanity'. The war effort could surge on ahead unabated by troublesome poets.

Not that he was completely muzzled. It was now, in this facility, that Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, and recruited him for his 'war on war'.

Siegfried Sassoon could have spent the rest of the war in relative safety. But his conscience wouldn't allow it.

He insisted on returning to the front line, counting the comradeship of his men against the peace in Craiglockhart. If they were suffering and dying, he saw no good reason why he shouldn't be with them, telling their truths in poems read by a gasping British public.

Siegfried renounced his pacifism. He was instantly pronounced 'cured' by medical staff and sent straight back into the war.

Does It Matter?

Siegfried Sassoon at his ironic best in 1917

Does it matter? - losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after football
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter? - losing your sight?
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter? - those dreams from the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know that you've fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

Siegfried Sassoon Meeting Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart

Dramatized in the 1997 movie 'Regeneration', based on Pat Barker's trilogy of the same name. It tells Sassoon's story in novel form.

Regeneration on DVD

James Wilby stars as Siegfried Sassoon.

The Regeneration Trilogy

The Ghost Road won the Booker prize.

'The Song was Wordless; the Singing will Never be Done'

The closing months of World War One proved nearly fatal for one war poet and killed another outright. Siegfried blamed himself for both.

Image: Siegfried SassoonSiegfried Sassoon was discharged in February 1918, but initially posted with the British Army in Palestine. He didn't make it back to the front line in France until July of the same year.

It turned out to be quite a busy month for him.

First, a poem of his caused a fuss when it was published in a left-wing magazine. I Stood With the Dead was a no hold's barred, satirical poem about men paid to stand in line to kill or die.

It prompted an angry letter from the Ministry of Defence to the editor, demanding to know when the poem was submitted. If it was recently, then Sassoon was going to be court martialled and shot. If earlier, then he'd have been certified 'insane' and they could let it go.

The editor replied that he didn't know.

The second major incident occurred on July 13th 1918.  Sassoon persuaded one of his men to accompany him on a wild patrol into No Man's Land, but they didn't get very far.

He'd barely raised his head above the level of the trench, when a bullet hit him in it. Only it wasn't fired from the German side, but by a British soldier standing by. It had been an accident, but the Tommy was utterly distraught.

Siegfried Sassoon survived the gunshot, but the war was effectively over for him now. He was shipped back to Britain for treatment, and hadn't yet recovered by the time the Armistice was sounded.

Everyone Sang

Sassoon wrote this poem on Armistice Day 1918

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

One last sad coda occurred during those last weeks.  When Wilfred Owen heard that Sassoon was injured, he volunteered to return to the front himself.

Convinced by his poet mentor's earlier arguments - about unflinching poetry ending war by describing war - Owen commented that one of them had to be on the front line, or else the truth would not be told.

He was killed just two days before the end of the Great War.

It was Siegfried Sassoon's unrelenting guilt over that, which caused him to devote decades to promoting Owen's poetry, at the expense of his own.

Thus Britain got its iconic war poet after all, but the wars never ended.

Wilfred Owen is arguably Britain's greatest ever war poet. His words took his readers right into the trenches of the First World War, and broke their hearts.

Read Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs (Sort of)

In the decade after World War One, he wrote his semi-autobiographical trilogy about the 'fictional' life of George Sherston. No-one was fooled.
Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 03/15/2014

Thank you for reading it, and I'm glad that you enjoyed it.

Mira on 03/15/2014

I loved this page, Jo, and enjoyed his poems.

JoHarrington on 03/05/2014

I'm glad that you liked it. :) And yes, I thought he was incredibly interesting.

Calanon on 03/05/2014

This is a very interesting article about a very interesting man!

JoHarrington on 03/01/2014

The sarcasm of that poem absolutely bites, doesn't it?

Ordinarily, I'd be nodding away in agreement regarding mental institutions of this period. But Craiglockhart was hugely ahead of its time. Under the leadership of Dr Rivers, a whole system of treating trauma psychology was devised, which still largely holds in place to this day.

Ember on 02/28/2014

I liked Does it Matter. Artists have beautiful minds.

But also- "and put him safely away in a sanitarium" ...safely... LOL

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