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?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory