As the first trains departed for the front in 1914, few of the enlisted suspected that a tragedy was to follow. Not even Siegfried Sassoon who was to arrive at the frontline a year later, realised what was coming. The First World War, like the American Civil War some decades earlier, became a showcase for new military technology, laming, disfiguring or killing millions. Soon the enemies were entrenched on opposite sides in a war of attrition. The old world view perished in the bloody trenches of Verdun and the Somme. The most important witnesses to the tragedy, the ones who communicated this cultural shell schock most clearly, were the Great War poets, men like Rupert Brooke (d.1915), Wilfred Owen (d.1918) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Historyradio.org contacted one of the authorities on the period, Lord Egremont, in order to learn more about Sassoon.
Historyradio.org: Siegfried Sassoon came from a very privileged family, do you think this protected him in any way?
Lord Egremont: I think it helped him hugely. Class was important in Britain then. He also had a private income and a considerable fortune after a relation’s death in 1928.
Historyradio.org: There were several poets of the Great War, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and others. Many of them knew each other, isn’t that a strange coincidence?
Lord Egremont: They met accidentally; Graves and Sassoon were in the same regiment and Owen and Sassoon were patients together at Craiglockhart. In the probably quite philistine atmosphere of the army they were drawn to each other.
Historyradio.org: Where did they publish their poems? How did their literary output come to the attention of the public?
Lord Egremont: The war poems were not really successful during the war and Owen’s work was not published in any significant amount until after 1918. Sassoon’s prose works that came out at the end of the 1920s sold well. The acclaim for the war poems grew gradually and became particularly great during the 1960s.
Historyradio.org: When did Sassoon’s doubts about the great war begin?
Lord Egremont: He became disillusioned when his friends began to be killed and the home front became increasingly hysterical and out of touch with the reality of the trenches.
Historyradio.org: He was of course decorated for his tremendous bravery. But then he turned and issued a declaration against the war, and was detained in a psychiatric hospital. But he could have been shot, could he not?
Lord Egremont: He could have been. But the army was reluctant to risk a trial and public support for Sassoon. From the point of view of the Allies the general progress of the war at this point in 1917 was bad – at least a stale mate that seemed to favour the Germans.
Historyradio.org: After the war, he had some professional success, married and fathered a child. He was, of course, a well-known homosexual. To what extent was this a marriage of convenience?
Lord Egremont: I think he longed to have a family and hoped marriage might work.
Historyradio.org: There is a famous poem called «Suicide in the Trenches», do we know anything about when he wrote this poem?
Lord Egremont: Suicide in the Trenches was probably written while Sassoon was in the barracks at Limerick in January 1918. It has some Housman-like lines, and appeared in the Cambridge Magazine, February 23 1918. It is also in Sassoon’s 1918 collection Counter-Attack. It symbolises his growing disillusion with the war and his wish to shock civilians out of their ignorance. Sassoon’s style was relaxed and informal although strikingly effective.
“Suicide in the Trenches”
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.
Historyradio.org: Was Sassoon traumatized by his war experiences throughout his life, the way many veterans are today, with PTSD?
Lord Egremont: I think he remained deeply affected by it. I think the poem “Letter to Robert Graves” shows Sassoon’s disturbed state of mind during the summer of 1918, when he wrote it in hospital in Lancaster Gate, having had a bad time in the trenches. He recovered during the 1920s, perhaps helped by writing the prose works such as the Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man and Memoirs of an infantry Officer. But the war undoubtedly scarred him as it scarred so many. His friends of the 1950s remember long sessions listening to him talk about it. He was a man who valued dignity and therefore would have not wanted to reveal private pain except to people to whom he felt very close. The doctor Rivers was his confessor/father figure and this helped greatly until Rivers died in 1922.
Max Egremont (Lord Egremont) is a biographer of Siegfried Sassoon and a fellow of the Royal Society for Literature. (Image credit : Macmillan.)
Garth Ennis and Phil Winslade’s illustrated interpretation of Sassoon’s poem “The General”(some scenes added for dramatic effect) from the comic book Above the Dreamless Dead (2014).