- Sassoon's importance
- Early experiences
- 'War on war'
- Hospital and afterwards
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World War One recruiting poster
2. Siegfried Sassoon's early experiences
Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 and brought up to be a conventional 'English country gentleman'. He went to a public school and, for a short time, university, but he wasn't a keen student. What he really enjoyed was outdoor sport: from an early age he loved playing cricket and horse-riding, and later he took up golf as well. He was always a dreamer and a poet, too, deeply attached to nature and the countryside he lived in.
Although he eagerly joined up just before war was declared in 1914, and was soon selected to be an officer, he was not sent to the front until the following year. His spells there were interrupted throughout the war: he was wounded twice and also contracted a fever from which laid him low for over six months. His memoirs show how troubling and confusing it was to be in the midst of noise, devastation and death - and then transported (whether ill, wounded or on leave) to the serenity of the English countryside for recovery and rest, before returning to the hell of war again. But it was this contrast that began to make him angry: he got to learn at first hand how little the people at home understood what the soldiers were suffering, so appallingly and so pointlessly, abroad. (One well-known novelist even wrote to him saying, 'we civilians are better able to judge the war as a whole than you soldiers'.)
What soldiers suffered knocked all the grand ideals and flowery language out of Sassoon's poetry. War, he wrote, 'had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman. What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims.' Now he had to express the inhumanity of war in his poems.
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glowering sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!