Siegfried Sassoon: Conscience on and off the Battlefield

Real Heroes: Siegfried Sassoon

When you hear the term war hero, what do you picture?

Battlefield bravery — charging enemy lines in the face of incoming fire, risking one’s life to save the lives of friends, enduring painful injuries without complaint?

You probably don’t think of a war hero as one who sticks his neck out to oppose the very war in which he fights.

If we more readily associated heroism in war with the courageous resistance to one’s own bellicose government, the world might more often eschew the stupid and jingoistic reasons for which nations frequently shed innocent blood.

Siegfried Sassoon was a hero of both descriptions.

The son of an Anglo-Catholic mother and a Jewish father from Baghdad, Sassoon possessed a literary and artistic interest from an early age — a harbinger of future fame. His last name means “joy” in Hebrew. His first name might suggest a German origin, but his mother named him “Siegfried” because of her love of Richard Wagner’s operas. Otherwise, Siegfried’s only connection to Germany was his service to Britain in the tragically misnamed “war to end all wars” — also laughably dubbed the conflict that would “make the world safe for democracy.”

The Great War

A century after its start, World War I remains an enigma to people everywhere. We take history courses and still ask, “What was it all about?” or “What could possibly have justified the unimaginable slaughter and devastation it caused?”

Perhaps few adventures in history were more absurd in origin, outrageous in duration and counterproductive in their consequences than World War I.

Its main result was to make inevitable an even deadlier conflagration a quarter-century later. Perhaps few adventures in history were more absurd in origin, outrageous in duration, and counterproductive in their consequences than the one that began when an obscure, royal Austrian oddball was assassinated in Sarajevo in June 1914. (For dragging America into this senseless European madness, Woodrow Wilson deserves a big thumbs down, too.)

Sassoon was not a likely candidate for future hero status: he was a 27-year-old carefree novelist and avid cricket player as the world stumbled into war in the summer of 1914. He didn’t wait to be drafted, however. In a gesture of patriotism, he joined the British Army. He was already in service with the Sussex Imperial Yeomanry on August 4 when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. He was commissioned with the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a second lieutenant in May 1915. November of that year would be pivotal for Sassoon: his brother was killed in the Gallipoli disaster, and, days later, Siegfried himself was sent to the front lines in France.

Almost immediately, he inspired the deepest confidence of the men serving under him. On bombing patrols and night raids, he demonstrated stunning efficiency as a company commander. He singlehandedly stormed an enemy trench and scattered 60 German soldiers. Nicknamed Mad Jack by his men for his near-suicidal courage, he was awarded the Military Cross, for which the citation read,

For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all of the killed and wounded were brought in.

One of every eight British men who served on the western front in World War I died in the trenches or in the ghastly death zones that separated them. Casualties — the wounded in addition to the killed — totaled a staggering 56 percent.

Though it was the first war in which disease claimed fewer men than combat, that may not be due to medical advances as much as to the ruthless precision of machine guns and shell fire and the endless, violent gridlock of trench warfare. It’s nearly impossible for the horrors of the slaughter Sassoon witnessed firsthand to be expressed adequately by even the most vivid of words, but he would become among the few who made the attempt.

War Poetry

A supreme irony of the Great War’s carnage was the emergence of magnificent British verse. Sassoon was one of the best of the so-called war poets — warriors face-to-face with their own mortality, the obliteration of innocence, the squandering of life, the death of close friends, the failure of modernity, and the nightmarish inferno of combat itself. The more he experienced the agonies of those around him, the more he questioned the purpose — indeed, the very sanity — of the enterprise. Agog at the astonishing rate of servicemen taking their own lives, Sassoon wrote “Suicide in the Trenches,” one of his many poems focusing on the conflict:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

The war poets included Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, Charles Sorley, David Jones, Edward Thomas, and Wilfred Owen, widely considered as good as Sassoon. Owen would later credit Sassoon as the enormously influential inspiration that made him (Owen) a great poet.

Withdrawing Consent

Three years into the war, Sassoon had had enough. “In war-time,” he wrote, “the word patriotism means suppression of truth.” After a period of convalescence from war wounds, he declined to return to duty and threw the ribbon portion of his Military Cross medal into the river Mersey. His conscience compelled him to write this letter to his commanding officer in July 1917:

I am making this statement as an act of willful 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 defense 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 by negotiation.

"I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it." — Siegfried Sassoon

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong 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 practiced 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 realize.

Before the month was out, Sassoon’s letter became a sensation across Britain. It was read aloud by a sympathetic member of the House of Commons and printed the next day in London’s biggest newspaper, the Times.

The country’s military and political hierarchy debated how to respond. Sassoon might have been court-martialed and executed, but his reputation both in print and on the battlefield pushed the authorities in another direction. They decided he was mentally ill, deranged by neurasthenia (“shell shock”). They sent him for treatment to Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, Scotland.

At Craiglockhart, it was apparent even to W.H.R. Rivers, the psychiatrist and officer attending to Sassoon, that this principled young man was in full possession of his faculties. While hospitalized, Sassoon befriended Wilfred Owen, also remanded to Craiglockhart for shell shock. Upon his return to the battlefield a few months later, Owen would be killed on the eve of the war’s end.

(Sassoon labored in later years to bring Owen’s poetry to the attention of a wide, international audience. The two men’s friendship was the subject of Stephen MacDonald’s remarkably good play, Not About Heroes, still available in print today.)

Unable to prove that anything was physically or mentally wrong with Sassoon, the British military underwent a change of heart. They released him from Craiglockhart and even promoted him to lieutenant. In July 1918, in spite of all that he had endured, Sassoon volunteered to return to the Western front. He hadn’t changed his mind about the war; he simply couldn’t stand the thought of not being of assistance to the men in the trenches.

Within days of returning to battle, Sassoon was wounded in the head by a fellow British soldier who mistook him for the enemy. He recovered, but it was that “friendly fire” that took him permanently off the front. The war itself finally ground to bloody halt four months later. The death toll: more than nine million combatants and seven million civilians.

Legacy

Siegfried Sassoon lived another half century. In those postwar years, he earned his living as a poet, editor, novelist, and public lecturer. He married and fathered a son. His politics tended toward the left, but that’s not, fortunately, what he’s best remembered for. When war with Hitler came in 1939, he lamented but supported it, believing it a necessity brought on by the folly of the previous war.

It’s not uncommon for great issues to elicit an alteration of perspective from even the best man or woman. In time, he expressed some doubt about his stance in 1917 but his deeds and words during the Great War would forever define his legacy. I personally prefer to see him in those years as courageous and principled when under fire, no matter what form the fire took.

In 1951, he was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire by King George VI, an honor that recognizes “contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organizations and public service outside the Civil Service.” He converted to Catholicism and took great comfort in his faith in his final years. He died of stomach cancer at age 80 on September 1, 1967.

Sixteen great war poets, including Siegfried Sassoon, are remembered on a slate stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. The stone’s inscription features the words of Wilfred Owen: “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

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