Siegfried Sassoon

(1886-1967)

Photo of Siegfried Sassoon by George Charles Beresford

George Charles Beresford/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Siegfried Sassoon was one of the leading British poets who came out of World War I. He had a huge impact on the writing of the famed Wilfred Owen, a close friend who died in the war.

Sassoon’s father was a Jew originally from a wealthy Baghdad merchant family. He married an Anglo-Catholic woman from an artistic family. Though the his father was disinherited for marrying his mother, Sassoon still was able to live fairly well off the family legacy.

He enlisted in the British Army before the war but a horse-riding accident put him out of commission until 1915. That year and into 1916 he was known for his gallantry and even fool-hardy near-suicidal actions which earned him the nickname “Mad Jack.” He was awarded the Military Cross and was a popular officer among the men.

But the horror and misery of the war put him into a deep depression, heightened by the death of a dear friend. In 1917 Sassoon decided to come out against the war. Following a period of convalescence he refused to return to the front. He wrote a letter to his commanding officer which was published in the papers, “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.” Many in the British public thought the letter treasonous with statements such as, “I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

Rather than being court-martialed he was declared unfit for service and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met another soldier/poet, Wilfred Owen. They became fast friends. After Owen departed for the front and in spite of all his anti-war statements, Sassoon did as well. He first was in Palestine, then back to France. In July 1918 he was shot in the head by a British officer who mistook him for a German, but Sassoon survived and was returned to England.

After the war Sassoon edited Owen’s poetry and wrote a number of novels. He also published memoirs of his time as an infantry officer. Collections of his war poems were published with the stark realism that was his hallmark. He could rip with satire at those who comfortably used jingoistic propaganda to send others off to war, and he wrote of the horrors of trench warfare including the missing limbs, gas, mud and hideous ways of dying. Sassoon’s poem, “Atrocities” told about the killing of German prisoners by British soldiers. He had a long career in the field of British literature and publishing. Sassoon was one of the World War I poets commemorated in Westminster Abby’s Poets Corner.

Poetry

ATTACK

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring 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!

A MYSTIC AS SOLDIER

I lived my days apart,
Dreaming fair songs for God;
By the glory in my heart
Covered and crowned and shod.

Now God is in the strife,
And I must seek Him there,
Where death outnumbers life,
And fury smites the air.

I walk the secret way
With anger in my brain.
O music through my clay,
When will you sound again?

DOES IT MATTER?

Does it matter? -losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter? -losing you 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 in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

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