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

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