A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: ‘Mad Jack’ takes on the War Office

Siegfried Sassoon was decorated for his courage. Then, dramatically, he refused to fight. Andy McSmith on an extraordinary episode of wilful defiance

“I am writing you this private letter with the greatest possible regret. I must inform you that it is my intention to refuse to perform any further military duties. I am doing this as a protest… I am fully aware of what I am letting myself in for.”

Siegfried Sassoon had been back in England for almost three months, recovering from a severe bullet wound, when he wrote this portentous letter to his commanding officer, on 6 July 1917. He enclosed a statement that he intended to circulate, which opened with the words: “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.”

Sassoon was wrong on one point. He was not “fully aware” of how the authorities would react. Earlier in the war, they had handed out often brutal treatment to deserters and conscientious objectors, knowing that public opinion was wildly supportive of war.

But three years into a conflict that was originally expected to be over by Christmas 1914, there was a growing number of people, including officers serving at the front, who privately empathised with what Sassoon was saying, even if they thought he was mad to say it.

The War Office had never had to deal with a conscientious objector like Sassoon. Not only was he becoming renowned as one of the country’s finest young poets, he was also a war hero. He was known to fellow soldiers as “Mad Jack” because of his persistent practice of venturing into no-man’s-land to raid the German trenches by night, crawling through the barbed wire, revolver in one hand, knobkerrie in the other, and three hand grenades in each pocket, apparently not caring whether he got back alive.

During the Battle of the Somme, he had charged a German trench single-handed, down a slope, across a railway line, and up the opposite bank: the Germans thought it was a mass attack and fled. He won the Military Cross for rescuing a wounded man under heavy German fire, and was recommended for other awards. He was in England because a German sniper’s bullet had hit him in the shoulder, missing his jugular vein and his spine by a fraction of an inch.

During his convalescence, Sassoon had mixed with some of the country’s leading intellectuals, including Bertrand Russell, a pacifist, who had introduced him to the anti-war Liberal MP, Hastings Lees-Smith, who planned to raise his case in Parliament.

Seeing a political crisis looming, the War Office decided to tread cautiously. They tried gently to persuade him to withdraw his letter and statement and report for duty. He refused, but instead of arresting him, they told him to book himself into the Exchange Hotel, in Liverpool, and await orders.

Next, they gave him a railway warrant so that he could travel at the Army’s expense to Crewe to appear before a medical board. He tore up the warrant. Then, when it seemed that all hope of compromise was lost, Sassoon was visited on 18 July by his friend and fellow poet, Robert Graves, who was desperate to save him from the consequences of his “characteristic devilment” and told him, untruthfully, that there was no prospect of his going to prison: it was the medical board or a mental hospital.

The board convened the next day. The hearing was probably rigged and arrived at the conclusion the War Office wanted: that Sassoon was neither insane, nor pro-German, but suffering from shell shock. He was prescribed treatment at a convalescent home at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh.

Graves’s intervention kept Sassoon out of prison, but it was too late to prevent publicity. The Bradford Pioneer had been given a copy of his statement, which it published on 27 July. Three days later, Hastings Lees-Smith read it out in the Commons, and suggested that the conclusion reached by the medical board had more to do with political convenience than with Sassoon’s actual state of mind. To cheers from other MPs, the Under-Secretary for War, Sir James Macpherson retorted that Sassoon was “an extremely gallant young officer” who had written his statement under the influence of “nervous shock” and implicitly accused Lees-Smith of making political capital out of Sassoon’s distressed state of mind.

Sassoon was in the Craiglockhart War Hospital for four months, cared for by an eminent neurologist, “Doc Willie” Rivers. On 18 August, he was sitting on his bed cleaning his golf clubs when a fellow patient knocked on his door, and came in to ask if he would sign copies of one of his books.

Flattered, Sassoon started a conversation during which the diffident youth confessed that he too was a poet. “It amused me to remember,” Sassoon recorded later, “that I wondered whether his poems were any good!” They were. His visitor was Wilfred Owen. Their encounter is the centrepiece of Pat Barker’s war trilogy, Regeneration.

By November, the ever unpredictable Sassoon had changed his mind again, and went before a reconvened medical board wanting to be judged fit for the front line. He had his way, and was soon back among his fellow officers. His war service came to a sudden end in July 1918, as he was returning from another of his dangerous excursions into no-man’s-land, when he decided to savour the dawn of a beautiful summer’s day by removing his helmet and standing up to gaze at the horizon. He was shot by a British sentry who mistook him for a German; but with his usual luck, he survived, and lived to be 80.

Tomorrow: A German hospital’s ‘dying room’

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map