Siegfried Sassoon: The Rebel Soldier a Century On

Mike Peters

 

The rail journey from London to Liverpool in 1917 took four-and-a-half hours. Not an easy trip at the best of times but a particularly anxious one for a young army officer on leave from his regiment on an early day in July. Siegfried Sassoon, as the military cross awarded 11 months earlier testified, may have gained a reputation as a brave soldier, who was willing to risk his own life to pursue the enemy, and may have begun to make his name as one of the finest poets of his generation but he firmly believed, as his train pushed on northwards, that he was about to put at risk all he had achieved and indeed, all he hoped to achieve.

Tempted as he might be to step back from the brink, he knew it was now too late, for his words of protest at the way the British Government was unnecessarily prolonging the War, had already been written and widely circulated. At a time of patriotic fervor, when any doubts about the conflict were likely to be viewed as bordering on treason, Sassoon was convinced he had turned himself from war hero into war pariah. Hence, he writes in a letter to his superior, “I am fully aware of what I am letting myself in for.”

Despite his best efforts, however, his conviction that he would soon be the object of national contempt proves to be misplaced. Having been summoned by his commanding officer to attend a meeting at an army base near Liverpool, he is treated with kid-gloves. Offered a cigar, he is given the opportunity to withdraw his statement of protest and forget all about it. For Sassoon, looking to make a stand against the war, prepared psychologically for a court-martial and possible prison-sentence, the temptation to disavow his act of defiance is not very strong.

Refusing a medical-board that would most likely blame his behavior on a nervous breakdown, he waits it out until his friend, Robert Graves - he of later I, Claudius fame - persuades him that the authorities will refuse him the public infamy and martyrdom he seeks. If he continues to decline to accept medical help, says Graves, choosing to be economical with the truth, only a label of insanity and an asylum awaits.  Sassoon, believing he has lost his most important battle, succumbs, is declared to be suffering from shell-shock and handed over to the care of Dr W. H. Rivers, the eminent neurologist based at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh.

Even when the matter of Sassoon’s protest is raised in the House of Commons by a sympathetic MP, supporters of the war, aware of his outstanding military record, refuse to view his condemnation of  the British Government for sacrificing thousands of the country’s young men, as a political intervention deserving of serious attention. Instead there is something “radically wrong” with the officer, due to him suffering from a state of “nervous agitation.” Dissent then is gently and extremely effectively stifled by calculated kindness.

Yet, looking back a hundred years, it is precisely dissent that describes Sassoon`s behavior. Composed with careful and targeted deliberation, he writes his statement reluctantly, wishing he might be like one of the youthful soldiers in his unit - like young Patterson, for example, “who had come out to fight for his country undoubting.”  Instead, however, he purposely chooses to put himself at the head of those many voices in the country opposed to the conflict that was wasting so many lives in France.

There is no single explanation for why Sassoon decides to break rank on that June day in 1917 but rather a range of interconnected reasons - some building over time, others more recent; some, rather vague, others easier to define.  Arguably, his strong sense of comradeship, developed as a result of his public school education, causes him to empathize more than most with the suffering of his fellow soldiers - both officers and enlisted men.

 

 

As the 1916 Battle of the Somme gives way to the Battle of Arras and his colleagues and friends are either injured or killed, sometimes as in the case of Edmund Orme through the cruelest of ironic circumstances, his despair intensifies. Haunted by his experiences in the war - finding the body of a dead German “I thought what a gentle face he had”) or listening to the shouts of a dying soldier in the hospital bed next to him - Sassoon suffers nightmares - dreams of “parcels of dead flesh and bones, faces glaring at the ceiling, faces turned to the floor, hands clutching neck or belly…” - that prevent him from sleeping. Returning home on leave, he sees himself and fellow soldiers as “survivors… carrying something in our heads which belonged to us alone, and to those we had left behind in the battle.”

If, initially, Sassoon’s feelings of despair and fury are directed at the enemy, leading to a new uncompromising harshness in his poetry - by 1917 and the battle of Arras, various influences have led him to focus on his own side - particularly on those, either back in England or in secure positions behind the Front Lines, who, “glory in the mock-heroism of their young men… and in the mechanical phrases of the Northcliffe Press” and who sometimes seem more concerned with their own welfare than the welfare of those doing the fighting. One general, he notes, forbids the issue of steel helmets to avoid making the men “soft.”

Reading also plays an important role in Sassoon’s gradual disillusionment with the war. At the Front he reads a radical Danish magazine, which talks of “The sons of Europe…being crucified on the barbed wire…”Back home, Henri Barbusse`s vivid depiction of the suffering of war in the recently translated, Le Feu reinforces his horror at the barbarity he is witnessing and H. G .Wells’s Mr Britling Sees It Through, (t is a war without point) drives home a growing sense of the futility of the conflict. Bertrand Russell’s Justice in War Time also shapes a developing hostility to the role of the British Government in prolonging the slaughter.

Arguably however, most significant is his time at Garsington Manor, the Oxfordshire home of Ottoline Morrell and her politician husband, Philip, who passes on his confidential knowledge that the German offer of a negotiated peace had been rejected by the British Government. Also at Garsington, Sassoon encounters a number of pacifist conscientious-objectors, whose refusal to accept the prevailing orthodoxy about the necessity to ruthlessly crush Germany’s imperial ambitions, provides Sassoon with the confidence and encouragement to make his stand.

As it seems increasingly likely that the hopes for a quick end to the conflict are illusory, due to the weakening of the Allied Forces and the revelation that the government’s war aims are now more offensive rather than defensive, it is a meeting with Bertrand Russell in June 1917, organized by Ottolline Morrell, that finally causes Sassoon to draft his statement.

 

 

Measured, personal and informed by a powerful sense of justice, the document accuses the British State of deception and “callous complacence” to the sufferings of the troops. Written with an under-stated authority as “an act of wilful defiance... on behalf of soldiers” at the Front, it causes friends, even such close and sympathetic ones as Robbie Ross, famous for his role in the trial of Oscar Wilde, to urge its author to think again. Yet, Sassoon is unwilling to listen to all the advice he receives to withdraw his statement and only the wish to avoid being declared insane finally outweighs his fear of the disgrace of a court-martial, the pain of imprisonment and even the possibility of death by execution.

Ultimately then, the government wins. Sassoon is treated for shell-shock, returns briefly to fighting and lives on as a well-respected man of letters into his 80s, leaving the question of whether a different official response to his protest might have made a difference to the outcome of the conflict, hanging.

Whatever might have happened if Sassoon had been made a martyr, looking back a hundred years at his decision to write his statement in spite of the probable consequences, reminds us of the potential capacity of the individual to resist the powerful forces ranged against him. He may have failed to do what he set out to do, but the courage of his actions continues an example to others. 

It was this courage that caused him to risk his own life both at the Front and back at home. No doubt, his public-school education, his reading, his experiences on the battlefield, the influence of his friends and colleagues were all factors that contributed to his “act of wilful defiance.” Yet, also worth considering, is a further factor -  his homosexuality, hidden from himself as much as from others. Did this crucial aspect of his identity also play a part in providing Sassoon with the inclination and resolve to defy the Establishment? Having been made to feel an outsider because of his sexuality, he was arguably already in revolt against authority and its conventions before a shot was fired.

                                                                                                                       

Author Bio:

Mike Peters is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

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