Siegfried Sassoon (May 1915)
by George Charles Beresford
|Born||Siegfried Loraine Sassoon
8 September 1886
Matfield, Kent, England
|Died||1 September 1967
|Occupation||Soldier, Poet, Diarist, Memoirist, Journalist|
|Alma mater||Cambridge University|
|Period||Early 20th century|
|Genres||Poetry, Fiction, Biography|
|Notable work(s)||The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston|
Siegfried Loraine Sassoon CBE, MC (8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was an English poet, writer, and soldier. Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, he became one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirised the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon's view, were responsible for a vainglorious war. He later won acclaim for his prose work, notably his three-volume fictionalised autobiography, collectively known as the "Sherston Trilogy".
Early life and education
Siegfried Sassoon was born and grew up in the neo-gothic mansion named "Weirleigh" (after its builder, Harrison Weir), in Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother. His father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon (1861–1895), son of Sassoon David Sassoon, was a member of the wealthy Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family. For marrying outside the faith, Alfred was disinherited. Siegfried's mother, Theresa, belonged to the Thornycroft family, sculptors responsible for many of the best-known statues in London—her brother was Sir Hamo Thornycroft. There was no German ancestry in Siegfried's family; his mother named him Siegfried because of her love of Wagner's operas. His middle name, Loraine, was the surname of a clergyman with whom she was friendly.
Siegfried was the second of three sons, the others being Michael and Hamo. When he was four years old his parents separated. During his father's weekly visits to the boys, Theresa locked herself in the drawing-room. In 1895 Alfred Sassoon died of tuberculosis.
Sassoon was educated at The New Beacon Preparatory School, Sevenoaks, Kent; at Marlborough College, Marlborough, Wiltshire (where he was a member of Cotton House), and at Clare College, Cambridge, where from 1905 to 1907 he read history. He went down from Cambridge without a degree and spent the next few years hunting, playing cricket and writing verse: some he published privately. Since his father had been disinherited from the Sassoon fortune for marrying a non-Jew, Siegfried had only a small private fortune that allowed him to live modestly without having to earn a living (however, he would later be left a generous legacy by an aunt, Rachel Beer, allowing him to buy the great estate of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire.) His first published success, The Daffodil Murderer (1913), was a parody of John Masefield's The Everlasting Mercy. Robert Graves, in Good-Bye to All That describes it as a "parody of Masefield which, midway through, had forgotten to be a parody and turned into rather good Masefield."
Sassoon expressed his opinions on the political situation before the onset of the First World War thus—"France was a lady, Russia was a bear, and performing in the county cricket team was much more important than either of them". Sassoon wanted to play for Kent County Cricket Club; Kent Captain Frank Marchant was a neighbour of Sassoon. Siegfried often turned out for Bluehouses at the Nevill Ground, where he sometimes played alongside Arthur Conan Doyle. He also played cricket for his house at Marlborough College, once taking 7 wickets for 18 runs. Although an enthusiast, Sassoon was not good enough to play for Kent, but he played cricket for Matfield, and later for the Downside Abbey team, continuing into his seventies.
The Western Front: Military Cross
Motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the British Army just as the threat of World War I was realised, and was in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on the day the United Kingdom declared war (4 August 1914). He broke his arm badly in a riding accident and was put out of action before even leaving England, spending the spring of 1915 convalescing. At around this time his younger brother Hamo was killed in the Gallipoli Campaign. (Rupert Brooke, whom Siegfried had briefly met, died on the way there.) Hamo's death hit Siegfried very hard. He was commissioned into 3rd Battalion (Special Reserve), Royal Welch Fusiliers as a second lieutenant on 29 May 1915, and in November was sent to the 1st Battalion in France. There he met Robert Graves and they became close friends. United by their poetic vocation, they often read and discussed one another's work. Though this did not have much perceptible influence on Graves's poetry, his views on what may be called 'gritty realism' profoundly affected Sassoon's concept of what constituted poetry. He soon became horrified by the realities of war, and the tone of his writing changed completely: where his early poems exhibit a Romantic, dilettantish sweetness, his war poetry moves to an increasingly discordant music, intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propaganda. Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time, and this philosophy of 'no truth unfitting' had a significant effect on the movement towards Modernist poetry.
Sassoon's periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed, but vainglorious, capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades he scattered 60 German soldiers:
He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz wood had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. "British patrols" were Siegfried and his book of poems. "I'd have got you a D.S.O., if you'd only shown more sense," stormed Stockwell.
Sassoon's bravery was inspiring to the extent that soldiers of his company said that they felt confident only when they were accompanied by him. He often went out on night-raids and bombing patrols and demonstrated ruthless efficiency as a company commander. Deepening depression at the horror and misery the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed "Mad Jack" by his men for his near-suicidal exploits. On 27 July 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross; the citation read:
2nd Lt. Siegfried Lorraine [sic] Sassoon, 3rd (attd. 1st) Bn., R. W. Fus. For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy's trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.
War opposition: Craiglockhart
Despite his decoration and reputation, he decided in 1917 to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas (called "Dick Tiltwood" in the Sherston trilogy). Sassoon would spend years trying to overcome his grief.
At the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty; instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. Forwarded to the press and read out in Parliament by a sympathetic MP, the letter was seen by some as treasonous ("I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority") or at best condemnatory of the war government's motives ("I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest"). Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the Under-Secretary of State for War, Ian Macpherson decided that he was unfit for service and had him sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia ("shell shock"). Before declining to return to active service he had thrown the ribbon from his Military Cross into the river Mersey.
The novel Regeneration, by Pat Barker, is a fictionalised account of this period in Sassoon's life, and was made into a film starring James Wilby as Sassoon and Jonathan Pryce as W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist responsible for Sassoon's treatment. Rivers became a kind of surrogate father to the troubled young man, and his sudden death in 1922 was a major blow to Sassoon.
At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet who would eventually exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry. A manuscript copy of Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth containing Sassoon's handwritten amendments survives as testimony to the extent of his influence and is currently on display at London's Imperial War Museum. Sassoon became to Owen "Keats and Christ and Elijah"; surviving documents demonstrate clearly the depth of Owen's love and admiration for him. Both men returned to active service in France, but Owen was killed in 1918. Sassoon, despite all this, was promoted to lieutenant, and having spent some time out of danger in Palestine, eventually returned to the Front. On 13 July 1918, Sassoon was almost immediately wounded again—by friendly fire after he was shot in the head by a fellow British soldier who had mistaken him for a German near Arras, France. As a result, he spent the remainder of the war in Britain. By this time he had been promoted acting captain. He relinquished his commission on health grounds on 12 March 1919, but was allowed to retain the rank of captain. After the war, Sassoon was instrumental in bringing Owen's work to the attention of a wider audience. Their friendship is the subject of Stephen MacDonald's play, Not About Heroes.
Editor and novelist
The war had brought Sassoon into contact with men from less advantaged backgrounds, and he had developed socialist sympathies. Having lived for a period at Oxford, where he spent more time visiting literary friends than studying, he dabbled briefly in the politics of the Labour movement, and in 1919 took up a post as literary editor of the socialist Daily Herald. He lived at 54 Tufton Street, Westminster from 1919 to 1925; the house is no longer standing, but the location of his former home is marked by a memorial plaque.
During his period at the Herald, Sassoon was responsible for employing several eminent names as reviewers, including E. M. Forster and Charlotte Mew, and commissioned original material from "names" like Arnold Bennett and Osbert Sitwell. His artistic interests extended to music. While at Oxford he was introduced to the young William Walton, whose friend and patron he became. Walton later dedicated his Portsmouth Point overture to Sassoon in recognition of his financial assistance and moral support.
Sassoon later embarked on a lecture tour of the USA, as well as travelling in Europe and throughout Britain. He acquired a car, a gift from the publisher Frankie Schuster, and became renowned among his friends for his lack of driving skill, but this did not prevent him making full use of the mobility it gave him.
Sassoon was a great admirer of the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan. On a visit to Wales in 1923, he paid a pilgrimage to Vaughan's grave at Llansantffraed, Powys, and there wrote one of his best-known peacetime poems, "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan". The deaths of three of his closest friends - Edmund Gosse, Thomas Hardy and Frankie Schuster (the publisher) - within a short space of time, came as another serious setback to his personal happiness.
At the same time, Sassoon was preparing to take a new direction. While in America, he had experimented with a novel. In 1928, he branched out into prose, with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, the anonymously-published first volume of a fictionalised autobiography, which was almost immediately accepted as a classic, bringing its author new fame as a humorous writer. The book won the 1928 James Tait Black Award for fiction. Sassoon followed it with Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston's Progress (1936). In later years, he revisited his youth and early manhood with three volumes of genuine autobiography, which were also widely acclaimed. These were The Old Century, The Weald of Youth and Siegfried's Journey.
Sassoon, having matured greatly as a result of his military service, continued to seek emotional fulfilment, initially in a succession of love affairs with men, including the landscape architectural and figure painter, draftsman and illustrator, William Park "Gabriel" Atkin, actor Ivor Novello; Novello's former lover, the actor Glen Byam Shaw; German aristocrat Prince Philipp of Hesse; the writer Beverley Nichols; an effete aristocrat, the Hon. Stephen Tennant. Only the last of these made a permanent impression, though Shaw remained his close friend throughout his life. In September 1931, Sassoon rented and began to live at Fitz House, Teffont Magna, Wiltshire. In December 1933, to many people's surprise, he married Hester Gatty, who was many years his junior; this led to the birth of a child, something which he had long craved. This child, their only child, George (1936–2006) became a scientist, linguist and author, and was adored by Siegfried, who wrote several poems addressed to him. However, the marriage broke down after World War II, Sassoon apparently unable to find a compromise between the solitude he enjoyed and the companionship he craved.
Separated from his wife in 1945, Sassoon lived in seclusion at Heytesbury in Wiltshire, although he maintained contact with a circle which included E. M. Forster and J. R. Ackerley. One of his closest friends was the young cricketer Dennis Silk. He formed a close friendship with Vivien Hancock, headmistress of Greenways School at Ashton Gifford, which his son George attended. The relationship provoked Hester to make some strong accusations against Vivien Hancock, who responded with the threat of legal action. Sassoon was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1951 New Year Honours. Towards the end of his life, he converted to Roman Catholicism. He had hoped that Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic priest and writer whom he admired, would instruct him in the faith, but Knox was too ill to do so. The priest Sebastian Moore was chosen to instruct him instead, and Sassoon was admitted to the faith at Downside Abbey, close to his home. He also paid regular visits to the nuns at Stanbrook Abbey, and the abbey press printed commemorative editions of some of his poems. During this time he also became interested in the supernatural, and joined the Ghost Club.
On 11 November 1985, Sassoon was among sixteen Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by friend and fellow War poet Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."
The year 2003 saw the publication of Memorial Tablet, an authorised audio CD of readings by Sassoon recorded during the late 1950s. These included extracts from Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and The Weald of Youth, as well as several war poems including Attack, The Dug-Out, At Carnoy and Died of Wounds, and postwar works. The CD also included comment on Sassoon by three of his Great War contemporaries: Edmund Blunden, Edgell Rickword and Henry Williamson.
Siegfried Sassoon's only child, George Sassoon, died of cancer in 2006. George had three children, two of whom were killed in a car crash in 1996. His daughter by his first marriage, Kendall Sassoon, is Patron-in-Chief of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, and a Lady Associate Royal Welch Fusilier.
Sassoon's other service medals went unclaimed until 1985 when his son George obtained them from the Army Medal Office, then based at Droitwich. The "late claim" medals consisting of the 1914-15 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal along with Sassoon's CBE and Warrant of Appointment were auctioned by Sotheby's in 2008.
In June 2009, the University of Cambridge announced plans to purchase a valuable archive of Sassoon's papers from his family, to be added to the university library's existing Sassoon collection. On 4 November 2009 it was reported that this purchase would be supported by £550,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, meaning that the University still needed to raise a further £110,000 on top of the money already received in order to meet the full £1.25 million asking price. The funds were successfully raised, and in December 2009 it was announced that the University had received the papers. Included in the collection are war diaries kept by Sassoon while he served on the Western Front and in Palestine, a draft of "A Soldier’s Declaration" (1917), notebooks from his schooldays, and post-war journals. Other items in the collection include love letters to his wife Hester, and photographs and letters from other writers. Sassoon was an undergraduate at the university, as well as being made an honorary fellow of Clare College, and the collection will be housed at the Cambridge University Library. As well as private individuals, funding came from the Monument Trust, the JP Getty Jr Trust, and Sir Siegmund Warburg's Voluntary Settlement.
In 2010, Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, Memory and War, a major exhibition of Sassoon's life and archive, was held at Cambridge University.
The discovery in 2013 of an early draft of one of Sassoon's best-known anti-war poems had biographers saying they would rewrite portions of their work about the poet. In the poem, 'Atrocities,' which concerned the killing of German soldiers by their British counterparts, the early draft shows that some lines were cut and others watered down. The poet's publisher was nervous about publishing the poem, and held it for publication in an expurgated version at a later date. Said Sassoon biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson on learning of the discovery of the early draft: "This is very exciting material. I want to rewrite my biography and I probably shall be able to get some of it in. It's a treasure trove."
- The Daffodil Murderer (John Richmond: 1913)
- The Old Huntsman (Heinemann: 1917)
- The General (Denmark Hill Hospital, April 1917)
- Does it Matter? (written: 1917)
- Counter-Attack and Other Poems (Heinemann: 1918)
- The Hero [Henry Holt, 1918]
- Picture-Show (Heinemann: 1919)
- War Poems (Heinemann: 1919)
- Aftermath (Heinemann: 1920)
- Recreations (privately printed: 1923)
- Lingual Exercises for Advanced Vocabularians (privately printed: 1925)
- Selected Poems (Heinemann: 1925)
- Satirical Poems (Heinemann: 1926)
- The Heart's Journey (Heinemann: 1928)
- Poems by Pinchbeck Lyre (Duckworth: 1931)
- The Road to Ruin (Faber and Faber: 1933)
- Vigils (Heinemann: 1935)
- Rhymed Ruminations (Faber and Faber: 1940)
- Poems Newly Selected (Faber and Faber: 1940)
- Collected Poems (Faber and Faber: 1947)
- Common Chords (privately printed: 1950/1951)
- Emblems of Experience (privately printed: 1951)
- The Tasking (privately printed: 1954)
- Sequences (Faber and Faber: 1956)
- Lenten Illuminations (Downside Abbey: 1959)
- The Path to Peace (Stanbrook Abbey Press: 1960)
- Collected Poems 1908-1956 (Faber and Faber: 1961)
- The War Poems ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (Faber and Faber: 1983)
- Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (Faber & Gwyer: 1928)
- Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Faber and Faber: 1930)
- Sherston's Progress (Faber and Faber: 1936)
- Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (Faber and Faber: 1937)
- The Old Century and seven more years (Faber and Faber: 1938)
- On Poetry (University of Bristol Press: 1939)
- The Weald of Youth (Faber and Faber: 1942)
- Siegfried's Journey (Faber and Faber: 1946)
- Meredith (Constable: 1948) - Biography of George Meredith
- Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet, Jean Moorcroft Wilson (Duckworth, 2004).
- Chapman, Frank (10 December 2010). "War poet was tasty with bat". Kent and Sussex Courier. p. p42.
- Heytesbury House
- Casualty Details—Sassoon, Hamo, Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
- The London Gazette: . 28 May 1915. Retrieved 8 July 2009.
- Max Egremont , Siegfried Sassoon (2005), p. 103.
- Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (London: Penguin, 1960), p. 174.
- Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon (2005), p. 99.
- The London Gazette: . 25 July 1916. Retrieved 8 July 2009.
- Hart-Davis, Rupert (2004; online edition, May 2009). "Sassoon, Siegfried Loraine (1886–1967)" (subscription required). In revised. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/35953. Retrieved 9 July 2009.
- Peter Smollett (9 November 2010). "War resisters also deserve a memorial". Toronto Star. Retrieved 12 November 2010.
- The London Gazette: . 7 March 1919. Retrieved 9 July 2009.
- City of Westminster green plaques.
- Miller, Neil (1995). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. p. 96.
- Gianoulis, Tina (2005). "Sassoon, Siegfried". glbtq.com. Retrieved 29 August 2007.
- Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches (2003), p. 255.
- J. M. Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches (2003).
- The London Gazette: . 29 December 1950. Retrieved 9 July 2009.
- Catholic Authors - Ronald Knox
- Fisher, Deb (July 2008), "Interview with Dom Sebastian Moore", Siegfried's Journal 14
- Poets of the Great War.
- "Preface", Manuscript and transcription from The Poems of Wilfred Owen.
- Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet CD audiobook (CD41-008).
- Campbell, Duncan (10 May 2007). "War poet's medal turns up in attic". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 10 May 2007.
- University of Cambridge news
- Brown, Mark (4 November 2009). "Siegfried Sassoon archive likely to stay in UK after £550,000 award•Siegfried Sassoon papers attracted interest from US•Cambridge library still short of asking price". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- Collett-White, Mike (17 December 2009). "Cambridge acquires anti-war poet Sassoon's papers". Retrieved 31 December 2009.
- "Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon's papers saved for the nation". Daily Mail (UK). 18 December 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2009.
- "War poet Siegfried Sassoon's papers arrive in Cambridge". BBC News. 17 December 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2009.
- Siegfried Sassoon archive goes on show at Cambridge Maev Kennedy, The Guardian, Wednesday, 21 July 2010.
- "Author: Siegfried Lorraine Sassoon (1886-1967)". The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive. Retrieved 19 January 2013.
- John (October 2010). "Set to music". Sassoon Project blog. Cambridge University Library. Retrieved 19 January 2013.
- Alberge, Dalya (February 2, 1013). "Draft Siegfried Sassoon poem reveals controversial lines cut from Atrocities: Manuscript shows World War I poet toned down piece about British soldiers killing German prisoners". The Observer.
- Felicitas Corrigan, Siegfried Sassoon: Poet's Pilgrimage (1973). ISBN 0-575-01721-X (A collection of Sassoon's diary-entries and correspondence marking his gradual spiritual development towards Roman Catholicism.)
- Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet (1998). ISBN 0-7156-2822-4
- Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches: a biography (1918-1967) (London: Routledge, 2003). ISBN 0-7156-2971-9
- John Stuart Roberts, Siegfried Sassoon (1999). ISBN 1-86066-151-3
- Max Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon: A Biography (2005). ISBN 0-330-37526-1
- Siegfried's Journal: the journal of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.
- Miller, Neil (1995). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 92–96. ISBN 0679749888.
- Siegfried Sassoon collection of papers, 1905-1975, bulk (1915-1951) (669 items) are held at the New York Public Library.
- Siegfried Sassoon papers, 1894-1966 (3 linear ft. (ca.630 items in 4 boxes & 13 slipcases)) are held at Columbia University Libraries.
- Siegfried Sassoon papers, 1908-1966 (109 items) are held in the Rutgers University Libraries.
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Siegfried Sassoon|
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Siegfried Sassoon|
- Works by or about Siegfried Sassoon at Internet Archive (scanned books original editions color illustrated)
- Works by Siegfried Sassoon at Project Gutenberg (plain text and HTML)
- Profile at Poetry Foundation
- Profile at Poetry Archive. Biography and poems written and audio
- The Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship
- BBC: In our time. (Audio discussion 45 mins) with bibliography and links. BBC interview 1 January 1967 (Audio, 7 mins)
- WGBH Forum Network lecture given by Sassoon biographer Max Egremont (Audio and video, 1 hour)
- Siegfried Sassoon collection of papers, circa 1905-1975, bulk (1915-1951) (669 items), New York Public Library.
- Archival material relating to Siegfried Sassoon listed at the UK National Archives
- Papers of Siegfried Sassoon, Cambridge University Library
- Sassoon in the Great War Archive, Oxford University/JISC.
- BBC Audio slideshow. Sassoon's papers at Cambridge University Library.
- Elizabeth Whitcomb Houghton Collection, Sassoon archive