The War Poets: Sassoon, Brooke and Owen
Posted on 19th May 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 indulged both feeling no obligation other than to ride with hounds, play golf and live the life of a country gentleman; but like most young men of his generation and background he had a sense of duty and a deep if often subdued patriotism so upon the outbreak of war he enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry and trained as an Officer receiving his Commission 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 and protective of the men under his command, but he was also a conflicted man confused by a latent homosexuality that saw bonds of affection develop between himself and his fellow Officers that might not otherwise have been the case. He was also bewildered by his physical commitment to a war he was fast becoming disenchanted with in his heart.
Nevertheless, he remained brave to the point of recklessness which earned 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.
It was during visits home that he would become maudlin and despondent as if amid the mud and the blood of the trenches he could lose himself as a man of action venting his anger on the enemy and sating his melancholy in the written word. But in the comfort and peace of hearth and home he could see with unvarnished eyes the panoramic vistas of insanity.
In April 1917, he was shot by a sniper and was once again repatriated to England for a period of convalescence where, encouraged by those such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Lady Ottoline Morrell and the Garsington Pacifists he was encouraged to give public voice to his disillusionment. Given the possible consequences for Sassoon of doing so these people should have known better and it has been suggested they exploited him for their own ends. If so it would appear he was 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, was read out the following month in the House of Commons and later published in The Times Newspaper:
“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.”
In a war where any dissent from the front-line was frowned upon and Sassoon himself would have regularly censored the letters of his men it was a court martial offence and his fellow poet Robert Graves fearing the worst 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 war memoir “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 prosecute a well-known war hero for cowardice he was instead diagnosed as having been rendered mentally and emotionally unstable as a result of sustained front-line service and possible shellshock. He was sent to the psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh to receive psychotherapy, a 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 shellshock.
Sassoon was to remain at Craiglockhart for several 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 and 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 possibly as the result of 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 he was immersed into a life of privilege so far away from the horror of the trenches. He now embarked upon a series of homosexual affairs with young men who had no understanding or even concern for the pain suffered by those who were their seniors of just a few years. It only served to damage him further.
In 1933, he married Hester Gatty, a woman many years his junior, which at least provided 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.
Siegfried Sassoon who had survived the worst of trench warfare in the most horrific conflict then known to man lived to old age during which time he converted to Roman Catholicism and renewed 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, its participants and the events occurring around him Sassoon’s poetry has a disturbingly dispassionate and matter-of-fact quality that resonates with a sense of resignation and despair. It has 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.
The 27-year-old Rupert Brooke was already an established poet feted by the literati and those of the Bloomsbury Set long before the outbreak of Great War though he was as much admired for his boyish good looks as he was his literary abilities attracting in equal measure the attention of both men and women which caused him some early anxiety.
He was the son of a Master at Rugby School and had a sheltered, if not gilded childhood, but one which allowed him to dream and his dreams of an idyllic England were ones he expressed in his poetry, though always with wit and humour.
His was not an England of dockyards, blast furnaces and slag heaps but one of rolling fields, country Churches and lakes glimmering in the summer sun. When the opportunity came to fight for his rural idyll, he embraced it without question. As a result, his popularity as a poet has waxed and waned ever since for such patriotism sits uneasily in our more cynical age.
But Brooke never lived long enough to experience either the glory or pain of war but his idealistic verse reflected the feelings of many swept up in the enthusiasm of those early months of the war.
Brooke’s connections had ensured that even with no military experience, or indeed the required training, he was commissioned as a sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve, but the patriotic Rupert’s war was to be a short one.
On 23 April 1915, he died in delirium en-route to Gallipoli from the effects of a mosquito bite:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away’
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends, and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Born in the small market town of Oswestry on the border of England and Wales into a solid middle-class family that espoused the traditional values of sobriety, hard work, belief in country and the established social order the young Wilfred Owen also immersed himself in his Welsh heritage especially the stories of the Bards and from an early age he expressed his desire to be a poet.
Owen was resident in Southern France where he had taken a teaching post when war was declared but unlike Brooke and Sassoon, he displayed no great desire to become involved. Indeed, it seemed as if the war was occurring in some far-away place and had passed him by, and it wasn’t until late October 1915, that he at last out of a sense of guilt returned to England to enlist for Officer training in the First Artists Rifles.
Commissioned as a Lieutenant he spent the first year of his service in England where he came to like the feel of his uniform and certainly the respect that seemed to come with it. He was sent to France on 31 December 1916, but he had little time with which to dwell upon his new surroundings for within the week he had been transferred to the front-line fully experiencing its rich panoply of horrors – the constant shelling, the rat-tat-tat of the machine gun, the fear of the ever-present sniper, and the dread of gas.
The brutality of it all was a little too much for the dream-like Owen who began composing the first of the more than 650 letters he was to write home to his mother complaining of the filth and dreariness of it all and of the contempt he had for the dullards under his command whom he described as unimaginative lumps. Indeed, the difference in attitude between the middle-class Owen and the more aristocratic Sassoon towards the men under their command was stark, though Owen’s opinion would change over time.
Having had more than one brush with death in April 1917, Owen was blown high into the air by a trench mortar which left him with severe concussion. Badly shaken he was diagnosed as suffering from shellshock and evacuated back to England where he found himself at Craiglockhart at the same time as Sassoon. The two men quickly became close friends spending long nights together discussing poetry during which time Sassoon, whom Owen admired greatly describing him as greater than Shakespeare, encouraged him to write and write.
Owen was to act on his friend’s advice and almost all the poetry we now remember him for was written in the fifteen months of life he had remaining to him.
His shellshock meant that he could have completed his military service in England and despite Sassoon threatening him with violence if he did so he followed the example previously set by his friend and volunteered to return to the Western Front to be with his men. So, in July 1918, he returned to active service just in time to participate in the Allied push towards final victory. On 4 November 1918, he was leading his men in a crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal when he was shot and killed.
A week later as the Church bells in England tolled to signal the end of the war and people took to the streets to celebrate Owen’s parents received the telegram informing them that their only son had been killed in action.
In 1919, in recognition of the great courage and endeavour he displayed in leading his men in a series of actions the previous autumn he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.
Wilfred Owen is acknowledged by many to have been the greatest of the war poets more adroit and technically gifted but also more adventurous in his use of language experimenting with rhyme and vowel sounds to recreate the intense suffering of the common soldier often with a simplicity of language that reflected the simple sense of duty upon which they had entered the fight and endured its torments:
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks’
Knock-kneed, coughing like old hags we cursed through the sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shot. All went lame, all blind,
Drunk with fatigue, deaf even to hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick boys! – an ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out at stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime –
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Along with Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Wilfred Owen are all honoured with a plaque at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
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