Siegfried Sassoon: Suicide in the Trenches
Posted on 23rd January 2021
“Good morning, good morning! The General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card’, grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both with his plan of Attack."
Siegfried Sassoon was born into a life of wealth and privilege and in the years preceding the outbreak of war he felt no obligation to attain either academic achievement or pursue a career but instead preferred the life of a country gentleman, riding out, playing golf, and indulging his great passion - poetry. But like most young men of his background he had a sense of duty and a deep if latent patriotism and as with the declaration of war he enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry. His background determined he should train as an Officer and he received his Commission the in May, 1915.
In November he received the tragic news that his much loved younger brother Hamo had been killed at Gallipoli. The loss affected him greatly but served only to make him push harder for a front-line posting which he finally received in March, 1916.
Sassoon was to prove an exceptional Officer both dedicated to his task and protective of the men under his command but he was also a conflicted man - confused by his latent homosexuality that saw bonds of affection develop with fellow Officers that might not otherwise have been the case. He was similarly bewildered by his commitment to a war that he was fast becoming disenchanted with.
Nevertheless, he was brave to the point of recklessness earning him the nickname “Mad Jack” and in May 1916, whilst leading a night-time raid into No-Man’s-Land his courage in rescuing a fellow soldier saw him awarded the Military Cross.
After participating in the Battle of the Somme he was struck down by a severe bout of dysentery and briefly repatriated home and it was now among friends and family that he first began to express his doubts about the war. His visits home saw him become increasingly maudlin and despondent as if amid the mud and the blood of the trenches he could lose himself as a man of action but in the bosom of his family his heart became as melancholic as his words written in faded ink on aged parchment. But it was in the peace and calm of hearth and home that he could see with unvarnished eyes the panoramic vistas of insanity.
In April 1917, he was shot by a sniper and once again repatriated to England for some welcome convalescence where encouraged by those such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Lady Ottoline Morrell and the Garsington Pacifists he was encouraged to give voice to his disillusionment. If as has been suggested he was exploited him by those who called themselves friends for their own ends then he appears to have been a willing victim.
Having already disposed of his Military Cross by throwing it into the sea on 15 June he wrote his famous Soldier’s Declaration against the war which he sent to his Commanding Officer, and which was read out the following month in the House of Commons and later published in The Times Newspaper. In it he declared:
“I am making this statement as an act of wilful 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 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 that actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
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 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 the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.”
As in most wars dissent was frowned upon as Sassoon knew full well having himself regularly censored the letters of his men. His friend, the author Robert Graves fearing that he would be court-martialled had urged him not to do it.
He had experienced first-hand how the death of Siegfried’s younger brother had impacted upon the family, describing in his memoir of the war “Goodbye, to All That”, how when staying a night in the dead brother’s bedroom which had remained unaltered since his death with fresh flowers provided every day and his favourite cigarettes on the bedside table, being woken in the early hours of the morning by the rapping sounds and peculiar wailings of a séance. Sassoon’s mother later apologised for having disturbed him.
He now feared that Siegfried was about to inflict further grief on the family so he used his connections to interceded on his behalf. The Military Authorities sensitive to morale at home were prepared to listen and rather than consider him a traitor and prosecute a well-known war hero he was instead diagnosed as having been rendered mentally and emotionally unstable as a result of sustained front-line service and possible shell-shock. He was sent to the psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh to receive psychotherapy, a fairly new treatment also known as the - talking cure. At Craiglockhart he became friends with the fellow Officer and poet Wilfred Owen who was there also recovering from the effects of shell-shock.
Sassoon was to remain at Craiglockhart for a number of months but endured an increasing sense of guilt that whilst he lived in comfort and talked literature and poetry late into the night his men continued to suffer and die on the Western Front. His subsequent request to return to front-line duties was accepted. By the spring of 1918 he was back in France in time to resist the Germans last great offensive in the war.
Ironically, given the many risks he had taken throughout the war including the capture of an enemy trench single-handed, on 13 July he was shot in the head by friendly fire and invalided out of the army.
The years immediately following the end of the war were a troubled time for Sassoon as once more immersed into a life of privilege far away from the horror of the trenches he embarked upon a series of homosexual affairs with young men who though no more than a few years younger than himself had no understanding of the trauma of war. Their ignorance only served to damage him further.
In 1933, he married Hester Gatty, a woman many years his junior who provided with some stability in his life and a son whom he adored and though they were later to separate it was to prove a signal and transformative moment in his life.
Siegfried Sassoon who had survived the worst of trench warfare in the most horrific conflict then known to man lived to old age and in the years to come he was to both convert to Roman Catholicism and renew his interest in spiritualism. He was also to write his semi-fictional sketches from the front, one of the great testaments of the war, and continue to produce well-received poetry all his life but it will always be his wartime verse for which he is best remembered and admired.
For a man who had been so emotionally engaged with the war, with its people, and the events occurring around him, Sassoon’s poetry has a disturbingly dispassionate and matter-of-fact quality that resonates with the gravity of resignation and despair. It has an earnestness lacking in so many others, an acid-tongued cynicism that slices through the solemnity and maudlin introspection of regret and loss that lights up the fog of despondency but barely and without relief:
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 crumbs and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindled eye
Who cheer when soldiers march by;
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
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