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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

module:War, literature and technology

page:World War One: Siegfried Sassoon


Siegfried Sassoon. picture zoom © Imperial War Museum

Siegfried Sassoon was one of the most significant of the First World War poets. His uncompromising poetry detailed the horror of the trenches, the bravery of the soldiers and their anger at the inhumanity of the brutal, mechanised war.


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Background on Siegfried Sassoon
  • Born Matfield, Kent in 1886 into a rich Jewish family. His aunt edited the Observer and Sunday Times. His first love was country life and pursuits such as hunting and cricket which inspired his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man
  • He later became sympathetic to the cause of the miners: this was early evidence of his more socialist leanings.
  • Sassoon’s early poetry described as, 'Pleasant uninspired verse about the country’ by his contemporary Rupert Brooke.
  • In 1914 Sassoon joins the Sussex Yeomanry. He breaks an arm falling from a horse. In 1915 he goes to the Front.
  • In 1916 he is with the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the Western Front. He is brought back wounded from No Man's Land after capturing a trench full of Germans single-handed – an act for which he wins the Military Cross
  • Invalided home later in 1916, Sassoon takes a pacifist stance after a loss of faith in ethics and strategy. He was one of the first poets to be critical of the war.
  • In 1917 in the Battle of Arras he is wounded in the neck. He is sent to Craiglockhart for treatment for shell shock by W. H. Rivers. Meets Wilfred Owen.
  • In 1920 he becomes the editor of the socialist newspaper the Daily Herald.
  • Later writes his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.
  • Dies in 1967

     

    As a young officer, Sassoon went through an intense psychological experience as a result of his harrowing experience of trench warfare. Look at the following scene to see the kind of experiences Sassoon would have had during trench warfare:


    STORY: World War One
    SCENE: Deadlock
    launch scene


    British soldiers blinded by gas on the Western Front, 1918. picture zoom © Imperial War Museum

    Sassoon’s use of bitter sarcasm and graphic imagery make him one of the most moving and provocative of all the war poets. Look at the following activity where you can analyse Sassoon’s harrowing poem The Attack and respond to the poet’s use of language.

    The poem captures the terror of men caught in a mechanised war. Sassoon’s own experience of war is brought vividly to life as he explores the horror with unremitting detail.

    ACTIVITY

     

    Text only version


    Periscope for use in the trenches. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

    Sassoon became so disillusioned with the motives behind the prolonging of the war that he wrote a letter to the House of Commons criticising the way in which British soldiers were being sacrificed for no other reason than shallow political and commercial advantage.

    His famous Ethical Statement was read out to the House of Commons where it caused uproar and established Sassoon’s position as a preeminent critic of the war. Read the text of his statement and consider how far you agree with the views he expresses.


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    Sassoon's Ethical Statement
        Finished with the War
        I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe 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 this 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 by negotiation.
        I have seen and endured the suffering 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 practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.
       
    S.Sassoon
    15 June 1917
    Read before the House of Commons, July 30, 1917, printed in The London Times, on July 31, 1917 (ironically on the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele).

     

    When Sassoon met Owen

    Not only was there a great deal of literature written at the time of the First World War but there is also a great deal of important modern literature that is written about that period.

    Regeneration by Pat Barker chronicles the meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart, a rehabilitation centre in Scotland for soldiers with mental illness. We will look more closely at Owen’s life and writing in the next part of this learning module.

    Both men were suffering from shell shock. It was also convenient for the authorities to have such a virulent critic as Sassoon declared insane and sent to convalesce. The following passage describes a dream of Siegfried Sassoon’s:


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    Excerpt from Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration
        He woke to find Orme standing immediately inside the door. He wasn't surprised, he assumed Orme had come to rouse him for his watch. What did surprise him, a little, was that he seemed to be in bed. Orme was wearing that very pale coat of his. Once, in ‘C' company mess, the CO had said, ‘Correct me if I'm wrong, Orme, but I have always assumed that the colour of the British Army uniform is khaki. Not…beige.' ‘Beige' was said in such Lady Bracknellish* tones that Sassoon had wanted to laugh. He wanted to laugh now, but his chest muscles didn't seem to work. After a while he remembered that Orme was dead.
       
    From Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration, Penguin, 1991.
    *A pompous character in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

     

    Resource Descriptions

    Siegfried Sassoon.
    British soldiers blinded by gas on the Western Front, 1918.
    Periscope for use in the trenches.
    Person
    Person
    Scene
    Scene  Rich Media
    Learning Module