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Sassoon, Siegfried (1886–1967)

SASSOON, SIEGFRIED (1886–1967)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

English poet.

Siegfried Lorraine Sassoon was one of those who, through poetry and memoir, fashioned the enduring image of the British soldier in the trenches of World War I. He was born in southeast England; his father, a Jew from a Sephardic family, died when the boy was nine, so he was raised by his mother, a Catholic. He developed a very un-Jewish taste for country life and hunting, and a more ecumenical flair for poetry. He passed through the finishing schools of the country gentry, Marlborough College and Clare College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1905 and left a year and a half later.

Sassoon volunteered for military service two days before the declaration of war in August 1914. He initially served in the Sussex Yeomanry, but later he was posted to the Royal Welch Fusiliers, where he met the poet and fellow junior officer Robert Graves. By 1916 the Sassoon family had lost one son. Siegfried's brother Hamo was mortally wounded at Gallipoli and buried at sea. A close friend, Tommy Thomas, was also killed. Sassoon took on increasingly dangerous missions on the western front in the aftermath of these losses. His nearly suicidal raids on German lines earned him the nickname "Mad Jack." He won the Military Cross for bringing back the wounded from no-man's-land. In the first week of the Battle of the Somme (July 1916), Sassoon approached a German trench on his own, threw four bombs into it, and was amazed to see fifty or sixty Germans fleeing in terror. Shortly thereafter he contracted enteric fever and was invalided home. He returned to France in February 1917 and was wounded in the shoulder.

It was at this time that Sassoon came to believe that the war was being continued for no reason at all. While on leave in London he met a number of pacifists, including the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the circle of intellectuals and writers around Lady Ottoline Morrell. With their encouragement, he wrote his commanding officer to say he was not returning to the front and was prepared to face a court-martial in order to expose the insanity of the war. His letter appeared in the Times of London and was read into Hansard, the British parliamentary record, by Lady Ottoline's husband, Philip Morrell. The army was in a quandary. Sassoon was a decorated, brave officer. He could not be convicted of cowardice. Instead they decided that anyone who considered the war was insane must be insane himself. Rather than being court-martialed, Sassoon was sent for convalescence to Craiglockhart War Hospital just outside of Edinburgh.

There he met the physician W. H. R. Rivers, who saw right away that Sassoon did not suffer from shell shock but rather had an "antiwar complex." In extensive conversations, the two men shared their joint predicament. Rivers had to cure men of their illness in order to send them back to the place where they had become ill; Sassoon had to leave his men at the front in order to get them back from the front through protest and political pressure. Sassoon broke first. He could not stand the thought that anyone would construe cowardice in his decision not to go back to the front. So Rivers's patient was "cured" and returned to the men with whom he served, "in whose eyes I find forgiveness."

In his time at Craiglockhart, Sassoon befriended the fellow poet Wilfred Owen. They made an odd couple: Owen was about five feet tall; Sassoon more than six feet, six inches tall. But their poetry was very much on the same level. Together the two men produced some of the finest war poetry in English or in any other language. Owen was killed in the last week of the conflict, just before the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Sassoon was posted to Palestine and then back to France, where he was wounded again in July 1918. He survived the war.

In a way, Sassoon never left the trenches. His war poetry sold well and he became a literary figure in postwar England, befriending John Galsworthy, D. H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy, among others. He served as literary editor of the socialist newspaper the Daily Herald and then proceeded to put together the two volumes of his memoirs, which have become classics: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930). These memoirs were presented jointly in the parody of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress under the title Sherston's Progress (1936). He continued to write, but he never found a voice as powerful as that of the verse and prose that captured his trench experience. He did not serve in the Second World War and died in 1967.

See alsoOwen, Wilfred; Russell, Bertrand; World War I.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Campbell, Patrick. Siegfried Sassoon: A Study of the War Poetry. London, 1999.

Moeyes, Paul. Siegfried Sassoon, Scorched Glory: A Critical Study. Basingstoke, U.K., 1999.

Quinn, Patrick J. Missing Muse: The Early Writings of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Selinsgrove, Pa., 1994.

Thorpe, Michael. Siegfried Sassoon: A Critical Study. London, 1966.

Wilson, Jean Moorcroft. Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet. London, 1999.

Jay Winter

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