Often considered to be second only to Wilfred Owen among the great poets of the First World War, Sassoon’s work stands out for two things in particular: first, for the open way in which he attacks those he considers responsible for the war – military command, politicians, bishops and so on – and secondly because he was one of the relatively few poets who survived the War and continued to write thereafter, branching out into prose with his fictionalised three-part autobiography which began with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, published in 1928.
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.
Over the course of the War Sassoon’s poems also show a distinct shift from 19th-century Romanticism towards the grittier realism of the Modernists.
It was his outspoken criticism of the Establishment which saw him sent, in 1917, to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, to be treated for shellshock: the alternative was quite possibly a court-martial. It was at Craiglockhart that he met and mentored Wilfred Owen, whose own poetry was more focussed on the immediate suffering of the frontline soldiers.
If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say – ‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.
In spite of his name, Siegfried had no German ancestry: his father, Alfred, was born into a wealthy Jewish merchant family who disowned him for marrying a non-Jew. Sassoon’s Anglo-Catholic mother, Theresa Thornycroft, was a fan of Wagner and named the eldest of her three sons after the composer’s most famous hero.
Sassoon was certainly a heroic figure. He joined the British Army as soon as it became clear that war was inevitable, and although a horse-riding accident prevented him from being deployed until 1915 he distinguished himself as a Second Lieutenant (later Captain) of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. On one occasion he crossed the enemy line alone in broad daylight and, armed with grenades, put sixty German soldiers to flight and captured their trench. Perversely, he then settled down in said trench and read a book of poetry for two hours, thus delaying a significant British attack. In July 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross ‘For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.’ He was also nominated for, though not awarded, the Victoria Cross.
Following the War, Sassoon established himself as an editor, lecturer and author. He had a number of romantic relationships with men before marrying the much-younger Hester Gatty in 1933. They had one son, George, whom Sassoon loved dearly, but separated in 1945. He converted to Roman Catholicism towards the end of his life, and died in 1967 at the age of eighty. His work continues to feature prominently in anthologies of WWI poetry today.
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
And tell Him that our Politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
Under the Heel of England… are you there?…
Yes… and the War won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men… I’m blind with tears,
Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.
From ‘To Any Dead Officer’