Siegfried Sassoon, the War Poet Who Carved an Incredible Saga

Siegfried Sassoon is known primarily for his stirring anti-war poems and his beautifully-worded 'Declaration Against War'. This article is a brief history about the poet.
The English Poet and Novelist, Siegfried Sassoon, was born on 8 September, 1886, in a neo-gothic mansion named "Weirleigh", in Matfield, Kent. His father, Alfred Sassoon, was Jewish and his mother, Theresa Thornycroft, was Anglo-Catholic. His upper-class and very wealthy parents had married despite the objections of the orthodox Sassoon family. Unfortunately, the marriage broke up when Siegfried was five. His father died of tuberculosis four years after the divorce, and Mrs. Sassoon brought up her children alone.

Siegfried was educated at the New Beacon Preparatory School in Kent, Marlborough Grammar School in Wiltshire, and Clare College in Cambridge. He studied Law and History, but dropped out in 1907, without getting a degree. His rich background didn't necessitate settling upon a career, and he was content to spend his time socializing, fox-hunting, and playing cricket. His keen interest in poetry was encouraged by his artistic mother, but he didn't make any special mark in it until his 1913 parody, 'The Daffodil Murderer', of John Masefield's poem, 'The Everlasting Mercy'. This brilliant parody brought him the attention of the literary men of the time, and the subsequent poems he wrote and published established his reputation further.

War Experience:

It was the eve of the First World War and Sassoon, like many idealistic young men, enlisted in the army, joining the Sussex Yeomanry Cavalry first and then the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The reality of war quickly hit him with the death first of his younger brother, Ham, at Gallipoli and then his friend, David Thomas. Sassoon, in his grief-stricken determination to avenge them, began leading such reckless attacks against the Germans that he soon got dubbed 'Mad Jack'. Fortunately, he was soon recalled home for a retraining session, and that helped him straighten out his head. On his return to the war-front, he won the Military Cross for getting his men safely back from a raid and showed considerable courage during the Battle of the Somme.

He had become increasingly bitter having realized that the responsibility for the war didn't lie solely with the Germans. While recovering after a battle injury in England, he became drawn to the ideas of the English pacifists. This resulted in the public manifesto of the war protest, 'Declaration Against War', which, except for the strong intervention of his friend Robert Graves, would have resulted in court-martial. Instead, Sassoon was deemed 'shell-shocked' and sent to undergo psychological treatment under Dr. W.H.R. Rivers of Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. It was here that he met Wilfrid Owen, the then unknown young poet whose work he was to influence and encourage; both of them produced a good output of poetry during their stay at the hospital.

After his discharge, Sassoon rejoined his unit; despite his opposition to the war, he thought he owed it to his men to return to the front. He was sent first to Palestine and then back to France. Here, a renewed attempt at bravery resulted in a head injury, and he was returned for the last time to England. By the time he fully recovered, the war was over and he could gracefully retire from the Army.

After the War:

Sassoon had already become a household name for his stirring wartime poetry that had regularly appeared in various magazines, and he completely devoted himself to literary pursuits after the war. He established cordial contacts with the leading writers of the day, contributed poetry to John Galsworthy's short-lived magazine Reveille, did a brief editorial stint with the Daily Herald, and was instrumental in bringing the poetry of Wilfrid Owen (killed in action) and Edmund Blunden to public notice. He also became a popular public speaker, and produced a six-volume autobiography.

In the midst of all this activity, he found time in December 1933 to marry Hester Gatty. The marriage surprised his friends since Sassoon was homosexual. They had a son, George, in 1936, but ended up divorcing in 1945.

The outbreak of the Second World War, just twenty years after the 'War to End all Wars', came as a shock to Sassoon. He kept out of it and at the end of it retired to Heytesbury House in Wiltshire. Here he livedpeacefully―writing, visiting the village pub, participating in local cricket games, and meeting with old friends―and remained until his death at the age of 80, in 1967.

Poetry Collections:

1. The Old Huntsman (1917)
2. Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918)
3. War Poems (1919)
4. Satirical Poems (1926)
5. The Road to Ruin (1933)
6. The Path to Peace (1960)

Autobiographical Prose Works:

1. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928)
2. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930)
3. Sherston's Progress (1936)
4. The Old Century (1938)
5. The Weald of Youth (1942)
6. Siegfried's Journey (1945)
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