We still have lessons to learn from 95 years ago

We still have lessons to learn from 95 years ago

Siegfried Sassoon

At the National Portrait Gallery in London last week I attended a talk on the war poets  whereupon I received some great news, though rather belatedly.

For some reason throughout my entire academic career I had firmly believed that Siegfried Sassoon (whose very existence had only peripherally entered my sphere of recognition anyway) had perished in the Great War, and that his poems were found by a fellow soldier and returned to London to be posthumously published to instant acclaim.

But was this true?

I stood with the Dead, so forsaken and still:
When dawn was grey I stood with the Dead.
And my slow heart said, "You must kill; you must kill:
Soldier, soldier, morning is red."

The thought of a notebook stuffed with carefully handwritten lines like these being found in the vest pocket of his greatcoat as his cold body was shipped home seemed chock full of pathos and poignancy.

Of course it turns out that the bastard eventually lived a long life, long enough in fact to buy a copy of Sgt Pepper's and listen to it for a full three months() . But good for him, I say.

As it happens, I had attended the talk mainly for the discussion of Sassoon's good friend and fellow poet Robert Graves. Both of them had returned to England following injury and both subsequently returned to the front, seeing further horrific action.

Sassoon had signed up in 1914 immediately following the threat of war and was soon decorated for his (sometimes insane) bravery. His poems reveal however a growing distaste for militarism, empire-building and misplaced patriotism.

But it was when he declined to return to the front for a third time, and at the urging of his pacifist friends, that his thoughts on the so-called 'War to Preserve Civilisation' were translated into actions.

His about-face regarding the war's merit culminated in an infamous letter to The Times (which was the way things were done in those days). Given our current situation I believe it is worth quoting at length.

The letter

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

The letter caused uproar. Sassoon wanted a public court-martial but the army didn't want any more publicity. Eventually it was Graves who convinced Sassoon to check himself into a mental institution(††) and hide for a while.

Incidentally, while he was long thought to have thrown his Military Cross into the Mersey in disgust at the war, in fact he merely threw the ribbon into the river; the medal itself resurfaced only last year finally confirming this.

We won't concern ourselves too much with his post-War career, it's enough to say that he lived to see his works enjoy the respect and fame they richly deserved, and to see his own eightieth birthday too.

On a personal note, I am delighted to report that, as in the case of Twain (and Graves himself, who was at one time injured so badly his obituary [which he read while recuperating!] was published prematurely in The Times), the reports of Sassoon's death are greatly exaggerated.

Good news at last!


  1. I've no idea whether he cared a hoot about The Beatles or not but I like to think that he did [back ↩]
  2. †† Where he met Wilfred Owen who wrote a poem based on the 'old lie' by Horace Dulce Et Decorum Est… which I constantly quote to the annoyance of my friends. Years ago I was stunned to see the quotation, stripped of its irony, carved in huge letters at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC
    Arlington Memorial Amphitheatre
    [back ↩]