The book is semi-autobiographical, Sassoon writing from the point of view of his alter ego, George Sherston. Sassoon describes his early childhood from the late nineteenth century through to the beginning of the First World War. The names of people are changed and he writes his family out of history by claiming he was an only child, living with his Aunt Evelyn, when in reality he had two brothers and lived with his mother. Very little of the book however is untrue and it is a gorgeous description, even evocation, of a period of innocence seen mostly through the eyes of a young boy and long since lost to the modern world.
The world of Sassoon and Sherston was destroyed by the First World War. Almost everything he experienced before it, was lost in a changed world and the years of growing up.
The book is not just about fox-hunting although it is well described as it was something that Sassoon yearned to take part in as a boy, and enjoyed as much as he could as a young man. It is about growing up in the late eighteen hundreds, the people and characters who lived in the countryside in the Weald of Kent. It is about a love of horses, cricket matches, comic characters, the hop kilns and scenery, rides through misty woodland in the early morning and the excitement of point to point racing.
It is also about war, rain sodden dirty trenches and the death of good friends. There could have been no greater contrast for Sherston than to go from playing cricket on a hot sunny day in Kent, to crawling around no-mans-land on the Somme in France.
The book ends with Second Lieutenant Sherston standing in a ditch with a knobkerrie in his hand (a club for hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches), on Easter Sunday, 1916. He is looking towards the German line and listening to a bird singing: “I could find no consolation in the thought that Christ was risen,” he thought. “I sploshed back to the dug-out to call the others up for ‘stand-to.’”