“We’re None of Us the Same”

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Date: 1993
Publisher: Gale
Series: Twayne's English Authors Series
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 7,950 words

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Chapter One: “We’re None of Us the Same”

A Life

Despite great dangers and severe battle wounds, Siegfried Sassoon, poet, autobiographer, warrior, pacifist, and fox-hunting English gentleman, lived to a serene old age and kept an open mind and a simple heart. The first part of his life was sheltered, coddled, physically active, sports-centered, nonintrospective, and, as a poet, dilatory and dilettante. But the violent and terrible trenches of World War I provided the alembic for pure and great poetry. Peace came quickly to the world in 1918 but slowly to a man wounded as much in soul as in body, for nothing in his youth had prepared Sassoon for the horror of hand-to-hand, man-to-man killing, and nothing in combat prepared him for the indifference the world later felt toward the great suffering inflicted on a generation of youth by emperors and kings and by politicians and generals. Thus for almost 50 years after the guns of Flanders had ceased firing, Siegfried Sassoon devoted his significant skills as a writer to vetting his own life, to preserving in print the memory of a gentle, civilized time before the “Great War,” and to contemplating the existence of God. Slowly he descended from Golgotha to a serene plane of religious existentialism even as he remained for most of his life “a prisoner of war.”


Siegfried Loraine Sassoon was born on 8 September 1886 at his parents’ country mansion, Weirleigh, in the village of Matfield, nestled in the tranquil Weald of western Kent. The large Sassoon family in England were descendants of wealthy eighteenth-century Mesopotamian Jewish merchants who migrated from Baghdad to Persia, then India, and finally Britain. A remarkable tribe, they have been called the “Eastern Rothschilds,” a reference to that other dynamic Jewish dynasty with whom Page 2  |  Top of Articlethey sometimes married.1 Unlike the Ashkenazi or European Rothschilds, the Sassoons followed the Oriental Sephardic rites of Judaism.

The founder of the renowned Sassoon family was Sheikh Sason Ben Saleh (1750-1830). His son David Sassoon (1792-1864) eventually moved the family business under the protection of the Union Jack in Bombay. Several of his many sons opened and operated branches of the Sassoon trading company in England. A son and a grandson were knighted for philanthropy and business acumen. Siegfried’s paternal grandfather, Sassoon D. Sassoon (1822—67), opened a London branch of David Sassoon and Sons, and although he was no business genius, the firm prospered. Siegfried’s father, Alfred (1861—95), was born to great luxury. He eschewed “trade” and was trained as a concert violinist, but although he was given the best teachers money could employ, he never was more than a gifted amateur. Against his mother’s wishes Alfred became the first Sassoon to marry a gentile. She disowned her son and ritu-ally mourned him as dead. Nevertheless Alfred inherited a considerable fortune from his deceased father. Siegfried Sassoon would be raised within the milieu of his mother’s family. He remained angry with the other Sassoons because, with few exceptions, they ostracized his family.2 Sassoon D. Sassoon’s descendants never had the vast wealth of the other branches of the family, the so-called Royal Sassoons who hobnobbed with Prince Albert, later King Edward VII, and entertained such eminent dignitaries as the Shah of Persia. The one Sassoon relative Siegfried knew well and cared for was his Aunt Rachel, a bluestocking who edited both the Observer and the Sunday Times simultaneously. Despite all, Siegfried would later acknowledge that although his mother’s family, the Thornycrofts, provided the artistic talent in him and gave him his serenity, “the daemon in me is Jewish. And as a poetic spirit I have always felt myself—or wanted to be—a kind of minor prophet. I found . . . utterance in the war poems, of course.”3

Alfred Sassoon’s marriage was short and unhappy, although socially the couple were well paired. Theresa Georgiana Thornycroft came from landed gentry in Cheshire. She could trace her family back to the thirteenth century. There were three gifted sculptors in the family, including her brother Hamo, who, along with another brother, John, an eminent marine engineer, was knighted. Theresa and her two sisters were art lovers and proficient in sculpture and painting. She had studied painting with Ford Madox Brown.

The Sassoons had three sons in rapid succession: Michael in 1884, Siegfried in 1886, and Hamo in 1887. Theresa named her second son Page 3  |  Top of ArticleSiegfried because of her admiration for Wagner’s Ring. She was apparently oblivious to the fact that she named a half-Jewish child in honor of a composer who was one of the nineteenth-century’s most notorious anti-Semites. As a youth Siegfried liked the name: “a lucky choice for me—as it has always made me want to be a hero” (Corrigan, 47). Later Sassoon realized that Wagner himself was not an admirable person to emulate.

Alfred Sassoon was mercurial, quick-tempered, and quite unable to settle down to family life in a country manor house. On the other hand, the country-bred Theresa loved Weirleigh, with its views of luxuriant gardens and rolling hills. She was completely at home in the idyllic setting. She had a studio to paint in, and she became a superb equestrian, passing on her skill and her love of horses to Siegfried. In 1891 Alfred bolted. He ran off with his wife’s “best friend” and set up house with her in London. Theresa braved out the humiliation and pain, devoting herself to motherhood, religion, painting, and riding. She raised her sons as Anglicans. They saw their father for a few hours each week on Sunday visits, noting his ever-more-violent coughing. Siegfried was deeply affected by his parents’ unhappiness. Alfred found little joy in his adultery. In 1895, only 34, he died in London of tuberculosis. The sensitive Siegfried, not yet nine, was too upset to attend his father’s funeral in the Jewish Cemetery of London, but Michael and Hamo went and reported that they were completely baffled by the religion “Papa had given up . . . a long time ago” (OC, 37). Michael described the rabbis as “two old men in funny-looking hats {who} walked up and down saying ‘jabber-jabber-jabber’” (OC, 36). Siegfried grieved deeply for his handsome, generous, musical, fun-loving, and lost father. He also empathized with his mother’s hurt and rejection by both her husband and his family.


As a child Siegfried received no formal education. As was the usual custom for the rich, he was instructed by a series of private tutors and a governess. Theresa had great expectations for this intelligent child; he was indeed her favorite, and she called him her “second self (Corrigan, 48). Perhaps Sassoon’s later difficulties in relating to or even having relationships with women stemmed from the extreme closeness and the mutual identifying of mother and fatherless child. Trying to push him to an early maturation, she gave him a copy of Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare Page 4  |  Top of Articlefor his third birthday. Sassoon did not indicate that he got through Coleridge at such a precocious age, but he did read Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, Robinson Crusoe, and Diana of the Crossroads at an early age (OC, 55,60).

After recovery from the shock of his father’s death, Siegfried’s life settled down to a happy childhood in the Weald of Kent. He was healthy, and he loved outdoor activities and all sports, eventually excelling in cricket (which he played into his seventies), tennis, golf, riding, and, of course, fox-hunting. At age 10 he rather offhandedly decided that he was going to be a poet, and he began an intensive study of Longfellow, Shelley, and Tennyson.

Sassoon’s first formal schooling occurred at the New Beacon School from 1900 to 1902. He was then sent to a distinguished public school, Marlborough College, only one step down from Eton, the educational domain of the richer Sassoons. At Marlborough Siegfried began to actually write poetry in 1902, and he joined the Rifle Corps. Evidencing a talent for piano and organ, he became the school student organist. On the playing fields the all-around boy excelled in cricket and rugby. He also began to collect books and keep monthly lists of his reading; however, his final academic report before departing from Marlborough in 1905 stated, “Lacks power of concentration; shows no particular intelligence or aptitude for any branch of his work; seems unlikely to adopt any special career” (OC, 212). His housemaster’s parting advice was tersely admonitory: “Try to be more sensible” (OC, 212). But he departed for Cambridge “thinking only of cricket matches in the holidays, and wearing an Old Marlburian tie, which for me was neither more nor less than a badge of emancipation from an educational experience that I had found moderately pleasant but mentally unprofitable” (OC, 213).

Meanwhile Siegfried had grown into a handsome, robust, lean, six-foot-two athlete with a high forehead and an aquiline nose—a countenance that, along with a lifetime tendency to speak very softly and not look people straight in the eye, created a simultaneous and contradictory impression of friendliness and distantness. His two years at Clare College, Cambridge, in 1906—08, even after a post-Marlborough year of cramming, were aimless and disjointed. He tried studying law but soon found that he hated it. He transferred to a history curriculum, but instead of studying he read Pre-Raphaelite poetry. Mostly he golfed and sat up to the small hours of the morning composing “high principled poetry about nothing in particular” (OC, 233). He did not smoke or drink or study at Page 5  |  Top of ArticleCambridge. He certainly did not work for a university degree. At the end of his second year he was chucked out.

Meanwhile Sassoon’s Uncle Hamo, the distinguished Royal Academy sculptor, had taken a liking to his nephew and tried to help him with his poetry career. He urged Siegfried to write a historical poem to compete for the Chancellor’s Prize in poetry. Sassoon failed to win the prize, but he was serious enough about his poetry that he decided to find a printer, and at age 20 he published Poems(1906), anonymously and at his own expense, in an edition of 50 copies. They were circulated to friends and relatives at Christmas. By his own admission the poems lacked originality and were expressed in hopelessly hackneyed language. He did not know the meaning of the word cliché but he knew how to write one.

Having broken the news to his family of his unexpected departure from Cambridge, he decided to devote most of his time to writing poetry. At 21 he received an income of £500-£600 a year, a generous sum on which he could live in some comfort, especially considering that he was making his home at Weirleigh with his mother.4 His expenses did, however, include the upkeep for four horses, a groom, and a stablehand. Still there was never the question of Sassoon’s needing to be gainfully employed, which is not to say that he did not work and work hard: at poetry, cricket, horsemanship, and then war.


For the next six years Sassoon raced point to point on his favorite mount, Cockbird; hunted; and played serious golf. His new poems were dreamy, sentimental lyrics about flora and fauna and filled with Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite conventionalities. He became a devotee of Walter Pater (WY, 32—33). Edmund Gosse, the well-known critic and poet and a family friend, was kind enough or indebted enough to encourage Sassoon as he privately published book after book of verse. Finally and fortunately Sassoon discovered John Masefield and soon decided to write a parody of the future laureate’s popular narrative poem The Everlasting Mercy(1911). While burlesquing Masefield for all he was worth, Sassoon came under the spell of the older poet, so that the supposed parody, The Daffodil Murderer(1913), turned out to be a pretty good imitation of Masefield, whose latest long narrative poem at that time was The Daffodil Fields(1913). Sassoon naturally sent a copy of The Daffodil Murderer to Gosse, who praised the long narrative and forwarded it to the Georgian Page 6  |  Top of Articleanthologist Edward Marsh, whom Gosse and many others considered “the choragus of the new poets” (WY, 126).

Marsh befriended and encouraged Sassoon. They dined frequently in London, and the elder writer introduced Sassoon to the fashionable London literati. Finally Marsh practically ordered Sassoon to leave Weir-leigh, move to London, and truly get serious about the business of writing. Early in 1914 and with great trepidation Sassoon took rooms near Marsh’s in No. 1, The Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn, where he could write poetry under the tutelage of his mentor and where the country gentleman could participate more fully in the cultural life of the capital. Later the devoted Marsh would anthologize Sassoon in Georgian Poetry 1916-1917 and Georgian Poetry 1918-1919, the first of which would go a long way in establishing Sassoon’s reputation as a poet.

At this time Siegfried also began to take more interest in his Sassoon heritage. Perhaps most significantly, Marsh introduced him to the most famous of the younger Georgians, Rupert Brooke. Brooke and Sassoon at first had little in common. Although they were about the same age, Brooke had been born in 1887, was much better educated, and was far more advanced as a poet. Siegfried quickly came under Brooke’s literary influence, and his first war poems would imitate Brooke’s patriotic “The Soldier,” recalling “If I should die, think only this of me; / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.” Sassoon, the romantic poet, was waiting for a spark from heaven to fall and ignite his art. It fell as shrapnel. He was transmuted into a realist and a bitter satirist.


The summer of 1914 was especially beautiful in England, and it found Siegfried Sassoon bored. It was hard to write verse when the hounds were barking and straining and there was an opportunity to play serious county cricket. Although war loomed on the horizon, the thought was remote in Kent. Yet the “romance” of war held influence over Sassoon’s class. Uniforms were dazzling. How glorious to ride in a troop of horses! It would all blow over, of course, but there was a chance of some good fun and adventure first. Sassoon said, “My heart was in my boots” (WY, 251).

On 31 July 1914 Sassoon bicycled nonstop 30 miles to Rye to enlist the next day as a private trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry. He did not try for a commission, for he was unsure of his ability to lead men. On 4 August Page 7  |  Top of ArticleBritain declared war, and Sassoon thought he would canter off to battle on troophorse Cockbird. Sassoon was the first of 12 of his name to join the colors. None seemed less likely to prove a hero, provoke great controversy, and become a legend.

Paul Fussell says in The Great War and Modern Memory, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.”5 Nothing in Sassoon’s life as a wealthy and privileged upper-class gentleman prepared him for the experience of trench warfare, where “Corpses newly dead or in a lifelike position broke right through morale no matter who was the observer.”6 Who indeed could have known how the technology of the machine age could mass-produce human slaughter? Who could believe that human beings could devise or accept the horrible idea of attrition, the central strategic concept of the western front? Who could have anticipated the effect of the sight of batches of helpless men being blown to pieces by mass artillery fire on concepts of manhood and courage formed in gentler Victorian times? Arthur E. Lane notes that “since his pre-war background had been leisured and pleasant, Sassoon was all the more alert to the contrasts provided by the conditions of life at the front.”7

Sassoon did not go into battle as quickly as he expected. In cavalry training he broke his arm in a fall, and while recuperating and continuing to write poetry that he still privately published, he came to realize that mounted troops had little to do in the trench warfare that had developed in France and Belgium. Leaving troophorse Cockbird behind, he accepted a commission and officer training in a distinguished infantry regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Arriving in France in November 1915, he was assigned as transportation officer for the regiment’s First Battalion.

Sassoon’s poetry of 1914 and early 1915, published in Discoveries(1915) and Morning Glory(1916), continued in the early Georgian vein, treating war as a gallant quest and a challenge to manhood. The early combat veteran Captain Robert Graves, fellow officer in the First Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, who became Sassoon’s good friend and subsequent savior, noted in Good-bye to All That that at their first meeting behind the lines, Sassoon “had, at that time, published nothing except a few privately-printed pastoral pieces of eighteen-ninetyish flavour and a satire on Masefield which, about half-way through, had forgotten to be satire and was rather good Masefield.”8 Graves showed Sassoon some of his own war poems, and as he later recalled: “He told me that they were too realistic and that war should not be written about in a realistic Page 8  |  Top of Articleway. . . . This was before Siegfried had been in the trenches. I told him, in my old-soldier manner, that he would soon change his style” (Graves, 224). Even the death of his brother Hamo at Gallipoli in August 1915 provoked a poem, “To My Brother,” that is depersonalized, and noble death is portrayed as the path to immortality. Later, shocked by the bitterness and brutality of combat on the western front and by the utter misery of the soldiers’ troglodyte world, Sassoon would never again write patriotic or limply florid Pre-Raphaelite verse. The Somme scorched it out of him.

Sassoon’s actual experience under enemy fire commenced in January 1916 as his battalion took up a position on the river Somme line in preparation for the greatest British-German battle of the war. The Somme offensive, starting on 1 July 1916, cost 420,000 British casualties and nearly as many German. It resulted in minimum British gains, a paltry few miles of captured trenches, but no breakthrough. Now Sassoon knew the disillusionment, the horror, the frustration, and the mind-staggering toll of trench warfare.

Meanwhile Sassoon had developed a close relationship with a handsome young lieutenant named David Thomas, the Dick Tiltwood of Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man(1928), who was shot in the throat and died of the wound on 19 March 1916. Sassoon and Thomas had lived together on leave for a month in 1915 in Cambridge.9 Sassoon vowed revenge, and every night he went out on voluntary bloodthirsty patrols looking for Germans (Graves, 251).

Sassoon had other close relationships with younger, good-looking officers during the war. The soldier’s world was a womanless one, and, of course, there was a great need for affection. Nowhere in Sassoon’s poetry or journals of this period is there a favorable mention of a young woman, although deep male friendships are often described. Homosexual activities at the front were, however, almost entirely of the platonic kind, as privacy was rare and the danger of being caught and severely punished extremely grave. Still, for upper-class British officers war was public school all over again. Further, World War I was close in time to the aesthetic movement, with its emphasis on the erotic beauty of young men. Young officers educated at public schools and universities were steeped in a literary tradition of homoeroticism that went back to Greek and Roman roots. Homoerotic motifs were completely natural to them.

In April 1916 Sassoon, still grieving for Thomas, ventured unordered into no-man’s-land to bring in wounded comrades. He was awarded the Military Cross for valor. His comrades named him Mad Jack.

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The Battle of the Somme was a miserable failure for the British under Field Marshal Douglas “Butcher” Haig. It was four months of hell. A generation of young men was broken. On 6 July 1916 Second Lieutenant Sassoon captured an enemy trench single-handed with Mills bombs (grenades) and was recommended for Britain’s highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross; however, the generals disallowed the award because the overall attack was a failure.

Late in July, as the seemingly unending battle wore on, Lieutenant Sassoon came down with acute gastroenteritis and fever and had to be medically evacuated to England. The illness was lucky, for it most likely saved Sassoon from death or mutilation on the Somme. Recuperating in August 1916 at No. 3 General Hospital, located in Somerville College, Oxford, Sassoon was visited by the art critic Robert (Robbie) Ross, once a friend and lover of Oscar Wilde and now a middle-aged bachelor with many literary and social connections, who had feelings of affections for the young soldier. Ross quickly became Sassoon’s enthusiastic patron and impresario. He introduced Sassoon to the notorious and flamboyant artistic doyenne Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose husband was one of the leaders of Britain’s small but vocal pacifist movement. Lady Ottoline “collected” Sassoon and invited him to stay for long periods at Garsing-ton, her estate near Oxford.

Soon Sassoon began to undergo a period of radical political education and programmed social climbing. He was introduced by Morrell and Ross to many of the leaders of the cultural and political establishment. Everyone was pleased to meet a genuine romantic war hero who was upper class, handsome, and a poet. Rupert Brooke was dead; Sassoon was alive. During his convalescence leave Sassoon continued to write the aesthetic poetry he had begun on the battlefield, while he comforted his mother—still grieving deeply over the death of Hamo—at Weirleigh.

Meanwhile Ross made the key connection for Sassoon. He took the manuscript of The Old Huntsman(1917) to his friend the publisher William Heinemann, who agreed to the publication of a volume of poetry that included several satiric, antiwar poems, the kind Ross had urged Sassoon to produce. It was sure to be controversial. Otherwise friendly and supportive critics like Gosse would later attack it.


In December 1916 Sassoon was back at the Regimental Depot in Litherfield, near Liverpool, preparing to go out again to France. Waiting Page 10  |  Top of Articlefor orders “back to the war was in a way more uncomfortable than being out there. The idea of being killed was continually in one’s mind. Once one was in the war zone it didn’t seem to matter so much and there was no time to worry. I could no longer indulge in fine feelings about being a hero, for although my period of active service had given me confidence in myself as a front-line officer I was ceasing to believe in the war itself.”10 He had, of course, learned of the failure of the Somme offensive, and that his battalion lay in shambles.

On New Year’s Eve Sassoon was reading H. G. Wells’s antiwar novel Mr. Britting Sees It Through(1916). It convinced him finally that the war no longer had any point, that it proceeded from its own mindless momentum (SJ, 61). Four months later, back in the line, Sassoon was shot in the shoulder at the Battle of Arras, leading a Mills bomb attack on a German position. Once more he was evacuated to England, where his wound healed quickly in a London hospital. But now, having met with the great pacifist Bertrand Russell, having spoken with Wells and Arnold Bennett, and having received an encouraging letter from his literary idol, Thomas Hardy, whose novels were his constant companions in and out of battle and to whom he dedicated The Old Huntsman, Sassoon decided to protest the war in a spectacular Byronic way. He would make what Edmund Blunden called a “splendid war on the war.”11

On 15 June 1917, having been promised a posting in England, thereby ensuring that his action would not be misconstrued as an attempt to avoid a return to combat, Sassoon wrote his famous non serviam, “A Soldier’s Declaration”:

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. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible for them to be changed without our knowledge, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them. Also I believe that it may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard Page 11  |  Top of Articlethe continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize. (Diaries 1915-1918, 173-74)

The protest was sent with a cover letter refusing further military duty to his commanding officer, Commanding Officer of the Third Royal Welch Fusiliers, Litherfield. Copies were sent to influential writers, editors, and politicians, among them Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, Edward Marsh, J. A. Spender, Lord Brassey, and Harold Cox. A copy of the protest was printed in the London Times, and it was read out in the House of Commons. Sassoon saw his action as the moral equivalent of going over the top. He especially needed to attack the noncombatants on the home front and their “callous complacence” to the terrible agonies “they do not share.” Sassoon fully expected a court-martial and martyrdom with concomitant publicity to advance the pacifist cause. It was not to be.

Sassoon’s good friend Robert Graves intervened to save him from court-martial, cashiering, and imprisonment for what would probably have been a futile gesture. Graves surreptitiously appealed to Sassoon’s senior officers and tried to convince them that his friend was shell-shocked by his combat experiences and that he should be examined by a medical board and be granted indefinite leave to recover. The senior battalion major passed the buck around the absent-on-leave colonel to the commanding general of the Mersey Defenses, who discreetly sent the hot potato on to the War Office, which wisely decided against publicity and for the hushup. The War Office ordered Sassoon before a medical board (Graves, 323—24). Meanwhile, while waiting in Liverpool for the ax to fall, Sassoon went down to the shore at Formby, tore the Military Cross ribbon from his tunic, and threw it into the mouth of the Mersey.

Now Graves had to get to the board before Sassoon. As a fellow officer in the fusiliers he testified that Sassoon had hallucinations, seeing corpses in Piccadilly. Graves fumed: “The irony of having to argue to these mad old men that Siegfried was not sane!” (Graves, 325). Sassoon was sent to a convalescent home for neurasthenics at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, where he came under the care of Dr. William H. R. Rivers, a dedicated, intelligent, compassionate psychologist and early Freudian. Their relationship evolved from doctor-patient to that of good friends. Rivers became a father figure for Sassoon. At Craiglockhart Sassoon wrote the poems that would be published in the aptly named Counter-Attack(1918), and he befriended and encouraged a young officer patient who was writing poetry. The officer, shaken because his commanding of Page 12  |  Top of Articleficer had falsely accused him of cowardice, became deeply devoted to the older Sassoon. Graves met and described the young man, Wilfred Owen, as “an idealistic homosexual with a religious background” (Fussell, 289). Sassoon and Owen continued their friendship long after hospitalization ended.

Rivers quickly realized that Sassoon was completely sane. For Sassoon the sham convalescence became untenable. He believed he was betraying his fellow soldiers. Sassoon was a brave man, physically and otherwise, who had felt that only a public protest against war could satisfy his conscience and who had then surrendered to the inevitable when he realized that his superiors were determined to make his protest ineffective by not seriously acknowledging it. With Rivers’s reluctant aid, Sassoon managed to pass a medical board examination, be returned to duty status, and manipulate the War Office into sending him out for a third time. Clearly Sassoon was seeking an expiation and vindication through death. On 7 January 1918 he was posted to a battalion in Limerick, Ireland, and then, on 8 February, to the Twenty-fifth Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, in Palestine. With the German breakthrough on the western front early in 1918, Sassoon’s battalion was rushed to France in May. Now an acting captain and company commander, Sassoon was able to do more for the men under his command. But on 13 July 1918 Sassoon, returning from a patrol through the long-grass of no-man’s-land near Morlancourt, was shot in the head. Ironically, one of his own sergeants had mistaken him for a German. The path home was familiar: dressing station, field hospital, embarkation port, and general hospital in England, this time the American Women’s Hospital in Lancaster Gate, London. Now he was one of Britain’s most famous battle casualties. And with the publication of Counter-Attack Siegfried Sassoon’s reputation as one of Britain’s premier war poets was firmly and permanently established.


Released from the hospital, Sassoon continued his recovery at Lennel House, near Coldstream in Berwickshire, and then at Weirleigh. Early in October 1918 Arnold Bennett, then deputy minister at the Ministry of Information, tried to obtain a post for Sassoon on the staff of Lord Beaverbrook, the minister, to prevent his shipping out again for France. Sassoon received a letter offering him a post and asking for his qualifications. Surprised and disinclined, Sassoon replied that his only qualification Page 13  |  Top of Articlefor a job in the Ministry of Information was that he had been wounded in the head (SJ, 106).

On 3 October Sassoon was summoned to London by Edward Marsh, who had been working as private secretary to Winston Churchill, then minister of munitions. Marsh too wanted to keep Sassoon from risking his life again and, knowing that Churchill had admired Sassoon’s poetry, hoped to obtain for his protégé a position in the ministry. It was a grotesque absurdity for Sassoon that he should be considered for such a posting, but out of politeness toward Marsh and interest in Churchill, the pacifist-soldier attended the interview. The conversation quickly became a Churchillian, cigar-in-the-mouth monologue on the glorious achievements of mechanized warfare, concluding with Churchill declaring, “War is the normal occupation of man . . . war and gardening” (SJ, 119).

At the beginning of November 1918 Marsh introduced Sassoon to a “somewhat distinguished Colonel” (SJ, 128), just back from Arabia. It was T. E. Lawrence, and they would be friends for the remainder of Lawrence’s troubled life. On 7 November 1918, only four days before the unexpected armistice, Sassoon finally met his literary idol, the author whose works he had devoured before, during, and after battles in France, Egypt, and Palestine: Thomas Hardy. The Grand Old Man of English letters invited Sassoon to Max Gate. Sassoon remained devoted to Hardy until the novelist’s death in 1928. Sassoon also received an invitation to visit the future poet laureate John Masefield, who then took the younger poet to meet the present laureate, Robert Bridges.

Meanwhile, on 4 November 1918, only a week before the armistice and after winning the Military Cross, Wilfred Owen, only 25 years old, was machine-gunned to death on the Sambre Canal. The telegram arrived at his parents’ home in Shrewsbury one hour after the armistice bells began to ring at 11:00 A.M. on 11 November. The news was kept from Sassoon. Months later, when he was informed, he grieved deeply for his lost friend. He went to Owen’s mother and obtained his poems, only four of which had been published. Sassoon arranged for an edition of Owen’s poetry to be published in 1920, and thus founded the reputation of the other great World War I poet. Sassoon’s generous action was a great gift to English poetry.

Even though he knew nothing of Owen’s death, the armistice gave Sassoon no joy. Like many combat veterans, he was depressed. The war had cost more than 700,000 British lives. Yet Captain Sassoon had triumphed over war. Interestingly, he would be called Captain Sassoon all Page 14  |  Top of Articlethe rest of his life, especially by the villagers of Heyetesbury, where he later established his home. He did not object to the warrior title, perhaps because he wanted people to remember which Sassoon he was and how he had stood up for his principles. Yet some thought the title odd for a pacifist. Others, such as Wilfred Owen’s brother, the artist Harold Owen, whom Sassoon befriended and helped, noted the seemingly irreconcilable aspects of his character: his compassionate poetry, his fierce killing of Germans even though he was against the war, and his lust to hunt and slay the fox.12 In retrospect Sassoon seems unlike the traditional, fully committed pacifists such as the Quakers. Rather, he was against wars for imperialistic or economic reasons wherein youth were deluded, lied to, and sacrificed in the name of patriotism. In World War II Sassoon was not a pacifist. Fascism had to be destroyed in order to save Western civilization.


Captain Sassoon was not officially retired for wounds until 12 March 1919. Picture-Show was issued in June and The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon in October, both to great acclaim. Sassoon now considered himself a political radical, and thus he enrolled in an economics curriculum at Oxford in order to help the Labour party; he soon grew bored with the Dismal Science, however, and quit.

Meanwhile a rushed general election was called by Prime Minister David Lloyd George. This event was termed the Khaki Election because so many soldiers were still in uniform and mostly unable to vote. Sassoon was asked to campaign for a Pacifist Socialist parliamentary candidate. To do so meant an open break with the politics and values of his family. Sensitized by the sufferings of the enlisted soldiers in the war, Sassoon agreed to campaign despite his diffidence as an orator and his shyness that made it hard for him even in his thirties to look people in the eye as he spoke. He campaigned for the Pacifist Socialist Philip Snowden, running for the seat from Blackburn in the industrial North, not exactly a fox-hunter’s home territory. Snowden lost but was later vindicated by achieving high office in future governments. Sassoon quit formal politics but continued to support Labour.

Sassoon worked hard at literary networking. John and Ada Galsworthy took him under their wings. Walter de la Mare, Wilfred Gibson, John Middleton Murry, and Virginia Woolf, who reviewed Counter-Attack Page 15  |  Top of Articlein the Times Literary Supplement, became friends. George Bernard Shaw; Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell; and Hilaire Belloc joined his circle. Max Beerbohm, whom he had met in 1916 at the Gosses’, grew closer even though Beerbohm returned to Italy. Max and Siegfried became lifelong friends. War Poems(1919) confirmed literary stardom. At this time Sassoon, to his own surprise, accepted a paying job. A new newspaper, the socialist Daily Herald, “The Paper with Its Face towards the Future,” asked him to be its first literary editor at a salary of £5 a week (SJ, 204—6). Sassoon’s Conservative mother referred to his newspaper as “that rabid and pestulent rag” (SJ, 212).

At the Daily Herald Sassoon went to work in a bright red tie and published satiric pieces from a socialist viewpoint. But his satires were uneasy and awkward because the issues of the time were not as clear-cut to him as were those in the war. Moreover, the fervor, passion, and intensity of his wartime poetry began to diminish rapidly. He had made war on war; now there was no such target for his anger, and neither was there an object for his affection. The newspaper assignment did not last, and the most significant result of editorship for Sassoon was his discovery of the young war poet Edmund Blunden, another lifelong friend.

Sassoon spent almost all of 1920 in North America on a lecture-and-poetry-reading tour, where he was feted as a Byronic hero. He met many leading American poets, including Edwin Markham, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Amy Lowell, and a young Edna St. Vincent Millay. Carl Sandburg took him on a tour of Chicago, and the playwright S. N. Behrman showed him New York. Sassoon was not a great hit on the platform, but admirers forgave him. One woman came up to the stage after a reading to tell him how much his “magnetic silences” had meant to her (SJ, 269). Others did not take kindly to his antiwar message.

Sassoon returned to England to take up residence in London at 54 Tufton Street and later 23 Campden Hill Square. In October 1931 he rented Fitz House, Teffont Magna, Wiltshire, where, having grown reclusive and desiring country life again, he resided until his marriage in 1933. But in 1921 he was still dreaming of battle.13 Recreations(1923), a collection of satiric poems, shows Sassoon struggling for subject matter. Sassoon’s sexual interest at this time was homosexual (Diaries 1920— 1922, 205-87 passim). His vacillating attitude toward his own sexuality troubled him throughout most of his life. Now young artistic and aristocratic men 20 years his junior became his lovers and live-in companions, particularly the artist Stephen Tennant, later in the decade.14 Page 16  |  Top of ArticleSassoon’s lovers were always effeminate younger men and his role in the relationships was not the passive, receptive part, so his sexual choices did not mar his gender self-image of a country gentleman and ex-soldier.

Trips abroad to Italy to visit Max Beerbohm in Rapallo, and to France and Germany; an epicurean life in the exciting world of literature and art; and public recognition provided less and less happiness for Sassoon. The war had left him an enigmatic, nervous man, lost in a lost generation, and without God. Death had chosen favorites, and he had not been one. Rejected, he spent a lifetime longing for the lost battalions. Slowly and only eventually he would try to bring himself back to religion and find purpose in the last half of his life (Corrigan, 39).

Rewriting Life

The publication of Sassoon’s Selected Poems(1925) was the high water mark of his reputation as a poet, but most of the poems had already been published in earlier volumes. Satirical Poems(1926) reprinted his later pieces from the more recent collections, and readers could readily see the falling-off in passion and purpose. Technique once more overcame topic. Yet Sassoon’s main literary activity for the next 20 years was the rewriting of his life to his thirty-fourth year. Thus he created for himself a second and then a third youth, growing old but living in a sometimes happier, sometimes tragic, but always more intense past.

First Sassoon selected, highlighted, and slightly fictionalized the countryman aspect of his early life. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man(1928) introduced Sassoon’s alter ego, George Sherston, to a delighted literary world. The fictionalized autobiography received two of Britain’s highest awards for fiction, the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Its success encouraged Sassoon to continue in the autobiographical vein. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer(1930) stands as one of the great World War I combat memoirs, along with those of his friends: Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War(1928) and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That(1929). Sherston’s Progress(1936) completed the portrait of a parsed Sassoon. The memoirs were republished in a single volume in 1937 as The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. Then Sassoon started all over again, this time writing his life as pure autobiography with The Old Century and Seven More Years(1938), reputedly Sassoon’s favorite book (Corrigan, 33), which tells of his life through 1907; The Weald of Youth(1942), autobiography to 1914; and Siegfried’s Journey 1916—1920(1945). Sassoon continued to write and publish poetry during the long Page 17  |  Top of Articlerun of autobiographical writing. The Heart’s Journey(1927), Vigils(1934), and Rhymed Ruminations(1939) are meditative collections centered on a search for “selfhood’s essence,” or the human soul. They also contain nostalgic and sentimental descriptive poems of environs, home, and family. The poems in Road to Ruin(1933) are political pieces warning against the resurgence of European militarism.

In 1931 Sassoon received the honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) degree from Liverpool University. He was then very much a part of the literary establishment, but poetry critics began to pay less attention to him. The 1930s through the 1950s saw a slow but steady decline in reader interest in Sassoon, while he took less and less interest in the changing climate and fashions of verse, until by the late 1950s he was virtually ignored. Sassoon had found the work of modernists like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and imagists like Amy Lowell to be uncongenial; the Thirties Poets—W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and C. Day Lewis—seemed politically and aesthetically wrongheaded, writing propaganda instead of poetry; and superstylists like Dylan Thomas were in the fireworks business. Sassoon, no longer a realist, satiric poet with an agenda, reverted to Georgianism and religious verse. Another strong reason for Sassoon’s retreat to memories of youth and the poetry of the past was the rise of national socialism. The Nuremberg racial laws deeply disturbed this man of ancient Jewish ancestry, who realized before most that yet another day of death was dawning over Europe and he was helpless to do anything about it.


Although Sassoon seemed never to have solved the doubts of sexuality, he did marry. Rejected and abandoned by his lover Stephen Tennant after a long and passionate relationship, Sassoon on 18 December 1933 wedded Hester Gatty, daughter of the late chief justice of Gibraltar, Sir Stephen Herbert Gatty. Sassoon had first seen Hester at the Wilton Pageant on 9 June 1933. They were introduced in September and became engaged after a whirlwind courtship. Hester was 28; Siegfried, 47. At their small, quiet wedding in Christchurch the guests included T. E. Lawrence. They cruised to Spain, Sicily, and mainland Italy for their honeymoon and then made their home at Heytesbury House, Heytesbury, Wiltshire, where Sassoon would live out his life. The marriage produced one child, a son, George, born in 1936. The marriage was not successful. The couple drifted apart and separated after 10 years, although Page 18  |  Top of Articlethey never divorced. A friendship lingered, and Hester even helped nurse Sassoon when illness struck him in his last years. Sassoon and George remained close throughout the father’s lifetime. George became an electronics engineer and undertook research at Cambridge. Hester died in 1973.

World War II

Sassoon was not opposed to British entry into World War II. Early on he realized that fascism had to be stopped and that force was the only way to do it. He opened Heytesbury House to war refugees in 1940, an example of the many quiet acts of charity Sassoon performed in his mature years. In 1942 a company of King’s Royal Rifles, with 20 Bren gun carriers, was bivouacked at Heytesbury House, and on the adjoining grounds, the beautiful estate park, 200 military vehicles were parked. A brigadier general and a brigade staff were quartered in Sassoon’s dining room. Soldiers were snoring everywhere. The next year the British troops were replaced by Americans, and the park of Heytesbury House was turned into a regimental camp for 1,500 Yanks, Nissen huts, and full equipment (Corrigan, 34). Long before, Sassoon had retreated to a bedroom and a study, reading and working through the night, and sleeping as best he could through the din of the day. If the old soldier could not go to war, the war surely came to him. Not surprisingly Sassoon published no new poetry during World War II.

Postwar Once More

Sassoon employed some of his time after the war to culminating his long, admiring interest in George Meredith by writing the biography Meredith(1948). After Faber published Collected Poems in 1947, most of Sassoon’s new poetry was published privately in limited editions: Common Chords(1950), Emblems of Experience(1951), and The Tasking(1954). The subjects include nature and religion, remembrances of days past and people gone, descriptions of dreams, and the joy of solitude. Incorporating 62 poems from these books into one volume, Faber published Sequences in 1956.

Twenty-nine religious poems from the earlier post—World War II collections were published in The Path to Peace(1960). The vein of poetry had just about run out, but Sassoon was a healthy septuagenarian. He still played a good, competitive game of cricket. He lived simply and ate Page 19  |  Top of Articlelittle, keeping the lean body profile of youth. He spent as much time in outdoor activities as was feasible.


Sassoon’s last years brought him several honors. In 1951 he was made a Commander, Order of the British Empire. Two years later his old college at Cambridge, Clare, which he had left sans degree, made him an Honorary Fellow. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the Gold Medal in poetry in 1957. In 1965 Oxford conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Letters.

Sassoon’s increasing soul-searching and God-seeking led him finally to conversion to Roman Catholicism. For a long time he had sought and enjoyed conversation and discourse with Catholic clergy. He was received into the church on 14 August 1957 in Downside Church. Catholicism brought great peace to Sassoon at age 70.

In 1961 Collected Poems 1908-1956 was published by Faber. It is Sassoon’s monument. The book marks his place in British poetry. A final publication, An Octave(1966), presents eight poems of serenity and quiet faith. It was privately published to commemorate Sassoon’s eightieth birthday, preceding his death by a few months.

There was one last soldier’s victory for Sassoon. Loyal to Edmund Blunden to the end but estranged from Graves, Sassoon helped the former to buy a cottage in Long Melford, Suffolk, advancing some of the money he intended to leave Blunden in his will (Jackson, 291). In 1966 Sassoon aided in the successful campaign to elect Blunden to the prestigious Oxford Professorship of Poetry over the American Robert Lowell. Blunden died in 1974; Graves, in 1985.

Siegfried Sassoon, the countryman, came to the end of his days peacefully, dying in his sleep at Heytesbury House on 1 September 1967 in the presence of his son. He was buried in Mells churchyard, Somerset. His long spiritual quest had ended, or perhaps had just begun.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2464600010