Siegfried Sassoon - mad, sad or heroically confused?
Tuesday 03 February 1998
The War Office, according to his army file released by the Public Record Office today, considered him "a lunatic" . Why else would he have had a protest against the war read out in the Commons? His men called him Mad Jack, because of his recklessness in the trenches, where he was recommended for a Victoria Cross. Wilfred Owen and Edmund Blunden who went through the same fire, called him master-poet, patron and above all, friend.
Whatever you may think of the War Office's description, he certainly was a man of deep ambiguities. Debate about his attitudes, his sexuality, and what he intended in some of his war poems, remains unresolved.
But "friend" is how generations of people trying to make sense of the British experience the Great War of 1914-1918 have seen Siegfried Sassoon ever since. There are his poems, but above all there is The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, Sassoon's trilogy of fictionalised autobiography, which is the first stop for many readers on their search to understand what soldiers had to put up with, and how and why they stood it. Sassoon himself never really worked that one out, and he was still trying when he died, aged 81, 31 years ago.
With a name like Siegfried you might have expected this man to be on the other side during the Great War. He was thus named by his mother, a Wagner lover. He was the most "English" of men, his passions in life before the war cricket, fox-hunting and writing poems about not much else.
Yet Sassoon comes down to us today as the man who dared to protest against the war, and with a little help from his friends, notably his fellow-officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Robert Graves, to get away with it. There can be no doubt that by the middle-point of the war many soldiers on both sides had come to feel that the fighting was being prolonged needlessly. Generals far away from the fighting were combining with windbags in Parliament and moneybags out of it to fight it out to the last man in the trenches, or so it seemed to the men in the mud. The deference is that Sassoon said so, not later but at the time. He did so to the horror of the like-minded Graves who was frightened that if Sassoon went on in this vein the British would now accomplish what the Germans had so far failed to do, which was to bump Sassoon off.
This is the Sassoon that crops up in another trilogy, Pat Barker's Regeneration (Viking) which appeared between 1991 and 1996, and in the current film of the same name. Sassoon famously met and befriended Wilfred Owen in the Craiglockhart sanatorium, where Sassoon had been sent after his protest, and encouraged Owen to write the poems that, with Sassoon's, for many people define the years 1914-1918.
Others feel differently. To Adrian Caesar, an academic, much of the Sassoon's war writing "angry, violent and sado-masochistic." In evidence, Caesar his study of the war poets Taking it like a man, Ceasar quotes Sassoon's poem Peace:
In my heart there's cruel war that must be waged
In darkness vile with moans and bleeding bodies maimed;
A gnawing hunger drives me, wild to be assuaged,
And bitter lust chuckles within me unashamed.
Ceasar's Sassoon wanted the Germans to bump him off. His Sassoon was involved in "a vicious circle of anger and guilt" over his homosexuality, from which the only escape was death. The peace protest, like the daring in battle, was to invite another self-martyrdom. When neither the Germans nor the British oblige, Caesar argues, Sassoon spent the rest of his life trying to make his experience manageable.
There is no end of Sassoons and books about Sassoons. Ironically, the one many people would like to read will never be written. As London university lecturer Jean Moorcroft Wilson is to reveal in her Siegfried Sassoon: the making of a poet, the first volume of which Duckworth publishes this May, Sassoon wanted to write a book about his troubled sexuality. In 1918, a man, particularly a soldier, did not even speak of homosexuality. At the end of Sassoon's life, he still did not dare write of it. Ironically, the law legalising sex between consenting adults was repealed in 1967, the year Sassoon died, his book unwritten. Even now, a biography authorised by the Sassoon estate has been bedevilled by disagreements over the same issue.
Moorcroft Wilson is being cagey about her Sassoon. She says Caesar's Sassoon is "too black and white." Hers is more an icon for the 1990s - a "very brave man, yet one prepared to rip his Military Cross from his uniform and throw it into the River Mersey". We are in an age of protest, she says, and Sassoons's protest is very attractive today.
Sassoon she believes was two people. One was an excitable young man caught up in the excitements of war such as exhilaration of patrolling at night in No Man's Land. But that was an artificial state created by his surroundings. The other man was the one who, back at home, and had time to think about the war never hesitated to say that, in the light of German peace overtures, what was happening to his friends and to his men was wrong."
Dr Moorcroft Wilson refuses to be drawn upon Sassoon's sexuality, or indeed whether he was homosexual or bisexual other than "it was a great problem to him" and that his orientation may have changed over the years. Although he had affairs with men in the 1920s he did later meet and fall in love with a woman, Hester Gatty, and they had a son, George. Though the marriage ended in separation, it lasted for many years and they parted friends. Dr Moorcroft Wilson may have more to say in the second volume of her biography, which takes up the story from 1918 onwards.
Edmund Blunden, whom Sassoon helped after the war, worked out his nightmares in many poems, but wrote much else. So too did Robert Graves. But with Sassoon, it was different. In a career of over 30 years he wrote and rewrote poems and autobiography about the years up to 1918, but published little of note about the years afterwards. It was as if there was no road leading out of the Great War. The one book Sassoon wanted to write, he couldn't. Others will keep trying to do it for him.
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