The poetry and protest of Siegfried Sassoon
He is remembered as one of the greatest poets of his generation. But what drove Siegfried Sassoon to decry the horrors of World War I so publicly, even when he risked facing the wrath of his own side?
Before Britain had declared its involvement in the First World War , Siegfried Loraine Sassoon had signed up.
He would later allude to “serious aspirations to heroism” that took him from his life of a country gentleman in Kent – where he had been born on 8 September 1886, grown up in a wealthy family, and spent his twenties enjoying fox hunting, cricket and writing poetry – to the battlefield in the name of king and country.
Sassoon kept writing as a soldier: his verse befitting the jingoistic and glory-fuelled works of many poets at the start of war, like Rupert Brooke.
“War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise / And, fighting for our freedom, we are free,” reads his 1915 poem, Absolution. And serving on the Western Front with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Lieutenant Sassoon distinguished himself.
He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during a raid on a German trench, where he stayed for 90 minutes under fire to assist the wounded and dying. Such was his fearlessness – he once captured a section of enemy trench singlehandedly – that his men nicknamed him ‘Mad Jack’.
Siegfried Sassoon's war poems
Sassoon was, for all intents and purposes, a good soldier, but he would become a vocal opponent to the war. In 1915, his younger brother Hamo was killed in the Gallipoli campaign and his poetry grew angry, bitter and acerbic. He depicted the suffering in the trenches and hospitals while satirising and condemning the military leaders who sent tens of thousands to their deaths.
One of his 1917 poems starts with a general cheerily greeting troops on their way to Arras with a “Good-morning, good-morning!” before matter-of-factly being followed with the lines: “Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead / And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine”.
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Shortly after writing The General – one of the dozens of anti-war poems he penned, making him a well-known figure back in Britain – Sassoon was wounded and sent to England to recover.
He got to know several prominent pacifists, including the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and came to the decision that he must protest the continuation of the war. And that he would do so publicly with an open letter to his commanding officer.
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“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority,” began the missive, dated 15 June 1917. It went on to describe the purposes of the war as “evil and unjust”, the soldiers as victims of “deception”, and voiced the desire that his protest 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”.
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Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen's relationship
Sassoon’s declaration risked a court martial, even execution, especially after being read out in the House of Commons and printed in newspapers. The military authorities instead hoped to discredit Sassoon by making out that he had gone mad as a result of neurasthenia, or shell shock, and sent him to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, for psychiatric care.
While there, Sassoon witnessed the traumatic effects of shell shock and its often-brutal methods of treatment, and wrote prolifically (completing some of his best poems, such as Does it Matter? and Counter-Attack).
It was his friendship with a patient that had the greater impact, however, for it was at Craiglockhart that he met and greatly influenced Wilfred Owen. The younger officer was a keen fan and his own style developed dramatically thanks to Sassoon’s guidance and encouragement, leading to iconic poems like Dulce et Decorum Est, Insensibility and Anthem for Doomed Youth.
Before the year was out, both men had rejoined their regiments. The months at Craiglockhart had quelled Sassoon’s protest and he chose to return to active service and not abandon his men. Yet, even then, his voice could not be silenced, as Sassoon published his poems in two collections entitled The Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter-Attack (1918).
Siegfried Sassoon after the First World War
Sassoon survived the war, although barely, as he picked up a head wound when shot by a fellow British soldier who mistook him for a German. Owen was not so lucky, dying just a week before the Armistice.
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Sassoon went on to have a long and varied career, including as a newspaper’s literary editor and a public speaker, before his death, at the age of 80, in 1967.
For the rest of his life, his writing regularly returned to the horrors of warfare, notably in a critically acclaimed three-volume semi-autobiography.
Sassoon’s angry, passionate and scathingly honest words deepened every generations’ understanding of the utter horror and despair of the First World War, or, as he calls it in his 1918 poem Suicide in the Trenches, “The hell where youth and laughter go”.
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.