My history hero: Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967)

Chosen by Deb Fisher, BBC History Magazine reader

Siegfried Sassoon

This article was first published in the February 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Siegfried Sassoon stands alongside Wilfred Owen as one of the two most celebrated poets of the First World War. Born in Kent in 1886, he fought with incredible bravery on the Western Front – earning himself the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ – but was appalled by the carnage he witnessed around him. This was increasingly reflected in his poetry (for example, Counter-Attack, 1918) which both highlighted and savaged the conflict’s futility. Sassoon continued writing after the war, winning acclaim for his prose work – most notably his fictionalised autobiography, the Sherston Trilogy.

When did you first hear about Siegfried Sassoon?

I first heard of Sassoon when I was doing a school project, not long after he died in 1967. At the time, I simply thought of him as a writer with an odd name, who had written a book about fox hunting. I wanted to know no more. The book that introduced me to the real Sassoon was one he himself hated – Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, a memoir of its author’s experiences in the First World War.

What kind of person was Sassoon?

‘Mercurial’ is one possible description. He was a mass of contradictions. He loved solitude, yet he was very sociable and was acquainted with almost all the great names of his day – Elgar, Hardy, Bennett, Russell, the Sitwells, Lawrence of Arabia. He was vain, yet very humble, a bit of a snob, yet desperate to help those worse off than himself. His father was Jewish, he was brought up an Anglican, became an atheist and eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. He saw himself primarily as a poet, but he was one of the greatest prose writers of the 20th century.

What made him a hero?

The heroism he showed during his war service was unintentional. He couldn’t help himself; his impetuous nature knew no physical fear. He used to go dashing off into No Man’s Land in the hope of rescuing someone, and he won the Military Cross for one such act. He once captured a German trench single-handed, but had to give it up because reinforcements never arrived.

What was his finest hour?

The main reason he is so admired today is for his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’, the letter he sent to his commanding officer explaining why he hadn’t returned to duty after a period of leave in 1917. The letter was printed in The Times and read out in parliament. Sassoon never claimed to be a pacifist, but he had become convinced that the war was being unnecessarily prolonged by the politicians. His concern was not for himself, but for the men who were being used as cannon-fodder. As punishment, he was sent to Craiglockhart military hospital, where he was treated for ‘war neurosis’ by the pioneer psychiatrist William Rivers. He was so bored there that he eventually went back to the Western Front – but not before he had become a mentor to another troubled young officer called Wilfred Owen.

Is there anything you don’t admire about Sassoon?

He was not very good at personal relationships. He would fall in love with people but didn’t always treat them well or wisely. He was inclined to whinge about how he was being neglected, when in fact he had plenty of friends.

If you could meet Sassoon, what would you ask him?

I would ask him if he still believed that his gesture of 1917 had been futile (as he thought at the time). He wasn’t the only person to protest about the war, but had the highest profile, and in retrospect was possibly the most significant. So many of the arguments we hear today are not about whether wars are necessary, but whether it is acceptable to go into them without an exit strategy.

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Deb Fisher was talking to Rob Attar. Deb Fisher is an IT professional who writes fiction and non-fiction as a hobby. Her books include Princes of Wales and Princesses of Wales, both published by University of Wales Press. She is the secretary of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship