a biographical sketch
"Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without
by Benjamin Disraeli (1832)
"Biography is the only true history."
by Thomas Carlyle (1832)
"There is properly no history, only biography."
by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)
A Fox-Hunting Man
Siegfried Loraine Sassoon
He was a fox hunter who became a soldier. He was a war hero who
became a pacifist. His literary importance far overshadowed his
military impact. He was a poet trapped in a nightmare of mud and
death. Faced with this environment his poems gave an increasingly
realistic and satirical view of the horrors of World War I. Even
there his greatest literary legacy was his influence on the work
of another poet. He was Siegfried Sassoon.
He sympathized with his men and was appalled by the slaughter
that marked trench warfare in World War I. He watched men die and
watched their spirits break. He saw fear drive men to violent
panic and quiet catatonia. To paraphrase William Butler Yeats
from another context, Sassoon was "changed, changed utterly" as a
"terrible beauty" was born in the outraged sympathetic irony of
his later war poems.
Born of a well-to-do family, Sassoon was perhaps the most
innocent of the young men who would become known as Great
Britain's War Poets. Sassoon had lived a life of leisure on a
moderate income, playing cricket and publishing private editions
of his poems. He enlisted before his enlistment as a trooper in
the Sussex Yeomanry two days before Great Britain entered World
War I. However, he broke his arm in a hunting accident before he
could get into the war. In May 1915 he became a commissioned
officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He finally arrived in
France in November.
The war he saw in the trenches was far different from anything
the young romantic scribbler had ever seen in his quiet life in
rural England or even the mob and press of London. The vastness
of the tragedy began to engulf him.
Joining his regiment in France, Sassoon met fellow poet Robert
Graves. They spent many hours reading each other's work and
discussing theories of poetry. These discussions helped Sassoon
adapt the "gritty realism" which was to supplant the prewar
romanticism that had previously shaped his verse. These poems had
been typical of the end of the Romantic era, hymns of almost
stupefied worshipfulness of idyllic settings. This attitude
carried over into his first war poems. In "Secret Music" Sassoon
I keep such music in my brain
No din this side of death can quell;
Glory exulting over pain,
And beauty, garlanded in hell.
Just as he arrived in France Sassoon was emotionally wounded by
the death of his brother Hammo at Gallipoli on 1 November 1915.
The horrors and misery he saw around him on the front deepened
Sassoon's depression. Perhaps to compensate, he repeatedly
undertook actions showing great personal courage. He volunteered
for night patrols and undertook expeditions on his own. At the
same time he remained concerned about his men's welfare.
This concern made him an efficient and well-liked commander who
was able to get the best out of his men. At the same time he
lived in torment. He began to see his men's faith in him as a
mark of the depths to which he had betrayed them. He was full of
contradictions. His men called him "Mad Jack" for his ferocity.
His fellow officers remembered him for his calm under fire.
Even as his faith in the necessity and the sanity of the war
vanished he continued to fight like a man possessed. He was quick
to volunteer for dangerous assignments and undertook many night
patrols and bombing (grenade) attacks in no-man's land. At this
point he still believed the Germans were responsible for the
misery of the war and sought revenge.
His near-suicidal exploits were punctuated by periods of almost
inhuman calm. Following a successful attack on German
entrenchments, Sassoon was seen sitting quietly reading a book of
poetry as the battle continued around him.
Sassoon's quest for revenge deepened and his exploits became more
crazed. He went on patrol when none were scheduled. He was sent
to the rear for four weeks at the Army School in Flixecourt and
when he returned he seemed to have calmed a little. When
Sassoon's platoon joined a raid on Kiel Trench shortly
afterwards, his actions in getting his dead and wounded men back
to the British trenches earned him a Military Cross, which he
received at the start of July 1916.
Immediately afterwards he was in action at the Battle of the
Somme. On 4 July, the Fusiliers were in an advanced bombing post
in captured German trenches and were suffering from sniper fire.
He crawled forward to a nearby section of trench still held by
Germans and threw four Mills bombs into it. He was surprised to
see fifty or more Germans abandon the trench and dash for the
safety of the Mametz Wood.
Sassoon was recommended for another decoration but none was
awarded because of difficulties capturing the Mametz Wood, which
was not taken till 12 July at the cost of 4000 casualties.
Sassoon's apparent calm was illusory. Sassoon was deeply troubled
and in the summer of 1917 the dam holding back his despair at the
conduct of the war and the resultant wasted lives finally broke.
Reflection on the death of his friend David Cuthbert Thomas may
have influenced the radical action Sassoon took. Thomas had been
shot in the neck 18 March 1916 by a German sniper during fighting
in the trenches.
The young officer thereafter spent a good amount of time on
convalescent leave. In late July
of 1916 he was sent home for trench fever or enteritis and did
not return to France until
February 1917. Back in France for two days he contracted German
Measles and did not return
to duty till 11 March. He spent two days in the Hindenburg tunnel
during heavy fighting and
then in the Second Battle of the Scarpe was wounded and returned
Sassoon had changed. He no longer saw the Germans as the
villains, or at least not as the
only villains in this great tragedy. On 19 June 1917, Sassoon
wrote in his diary, "I wish I
could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite
prolongation of this war. The
Jingoes define it as 'an enormous quarrel between incompatible
spirits and destinies, in which
one or the other must succumb'. But the men who write these
manifestos do not truly know
what useless suffering the war inflicts .... And the Army is
dumb. The Army goes on with its
bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their
words convince no one but the
crowds who are their dupes. The soldiers who return home seem
stunned by the things they
have endured .... If only they would speak out and throw their
medals in the faces of their
masters; and ask their women why it thrills them to know that
they, the dauntless warriors,
have shed the blood of Germans."
Sassoon became determined that he would make a point. This
passage quoted by Robert
Nichols in his introduction to Sassoon's book,
Counter-Attack, sums up Sassoon's
battlefield-tempered position on war: "Now let us never say
another word of whatever little
may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be
steeled. Let no one ever from
henceforth in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to
speak of how here and
there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For
war is hell and those who
institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it
should not be said for its
spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantage."
Convalescing from a wound received earlier in 1917, Sassoon
declined return to duty in a
July "declaration" that was prepared with the assistance of
Bertrand Russell and John
Middleton Murry. The carefully worded statement was published in
Pioneer on 27 July. It was read to the British House of
Commons on 30 July,
and printed in the London Times 31 July. The
text of the declaration
Lt. Siegfried Sassoon
3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers
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 believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers
entered upon this war should
have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to
change them and that had this
been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable
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 do not have enough imagination to realise.
There can be no doubt this declaration was made on behalf of his
men and was not a failure
of personal courage. Even after the war Sassoon spoke with great
empathy of the men under
his command. Again quoting Nichols, "Sassoon spoke most of the
war and of the men who
fought it. Always with a rapid, tumbling enunciation and a
much-irked desperate air filled
with pain – (he spoke) of soldiers. For the incubus of war
is on him so that his days
are shot with anguish and his nights with horror."
Sassoon also followed the advice of his diary entry and threw the
ribbon from his Military
Cross in the River Mersey. He was certain he would be
court-martialed but the strength of his
beliefs and his willingness to sacrifice himself to make what he
saw as a crucial point
propelled him forward in his defiance of the war.
His friends did not see things quite his way. Graves pulled
strings and made pleas and
convinced the authorities Sassoon was mentally ill, suffering
from shell shock. Instead of a
court martial he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in
While at the hospital Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a 2nd
lieutenant in the
5th Battalion, Manchester Regiment. Sassoon as a man
and as a poet impressed
Owen, who was also diagnosed with shellshock.
Sassoon wrote a great deal at the Edinburgh hospital, poems that
would later appear in
Counter-Attack. More importantly, Owen and Sassoon talked
about poetry a great
deal and about their attitudes toward the war. These
conversations infused Owen's work with
a new realism and a cutting bitterness that combined to produce
perhaps the greatest English
poetry to emerge from any war.
Owen's later poems such as "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce
et Decorum Est,"
brought a tremendous beauty of language to the horrors of trench
warfare. Sassoon's own
realistic efforts never reached the level of Owen's last poems.
Owen died on 4 November
1918, a week before the Armistice.
Owen's esteem for Sassoon bordered on hero worship. In a letter
to his mother, Owen
described himself as "not worthy to light his (Sassoon's) pipe."
Sassoon's psychiatrist, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, convinced him over a
period of four months that
his protest had done no good. Realizing he had achieved nothing
but separation from his men,
Sassoon applied to return to duty. He was posted to the
Regimental Depot in November 1917.
He joined the 25th Battalion of the Royal Welch
Fusilier in Palestine in
Owen, who had left the hospital, was devastated by Sassoon's
return to duty, particularly
when his friend's battalion was sent to France some three months
later. Sassoon was shot in
the head by "friendly fire," during a trench raid. He was sent
back to England to recover.
Although he could have remained on home duty until the end of the
war, Owen felt someone
was needed to relate the horrors of the front to the reading
public and applied to return to
combat as a replacement for Sassoon's voice. This dedication to
what he saw as his duty led
to his death.
Sassoon was put on convalescent leave till 1919 when he resigned
from the Army. He spent
the years after the war meeting important literary figures from
Thomas Hardy to T. E.
Lawrence. He wrote six volumes of autobiography. The first three,
Memoirs of George Sherston, were based on Sassoon's outdoor
persona. The first
volume, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man was published under a
Sassoon was unsure of the public response to prose from a poet.
Although he wrote poetry
after the war he is most noted for his prose output during this
He married Hester Gatty in 1933 and their son, George, was born
in 1938. The marriage
ended in 1945. He joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1957. He
was awarded the Queen's
Medal for Poetry in the same year. He died in 1967.
contributed by Jess C. Henderson