Siegfried Sassoon

Bookshelf 2

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

This was the second book in the “Sherston Trilogy,” first published in 1930. The book covers the period between Spring 1916 and Summer 1917 during the First World War. Sassoon was a very brave man and in reality he was given the nickname “Mad Jack” by his army friends because of his brave and often reckless acts while in action.

Sassoon tells his war time story through Sherston with only the names changed. As the war progressed and Sassoon saw more of his friends killed, he became disillusioned with the war. He went so far as to blame the British Government for prolonging the war and eventually protested against its continuation by refusing to take any more part in it.

He supposed he would be court marshalled and probably shot for cowardice, but did not care and believed he would still be able to have his say in public. He was thwarted however, partly due to the intervention of his friend in the book, David Cromlech, (the war poet Robert Graves in reality). Graves spoke up for Sassoon and convinced the high command that he was suffering from shell-shock. It was for this reason that Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart Military hospital in Scotland (Slateford Hospital in Sherston’s case), rather than being shot for cowardice.

As I have mentioned elsewhere on this site (Sassoon), although the ‘Sherston Trilogy’ is deemed to be a fictional autobiography, it is more to do with what Sassoon left out than to the few details he made up. For instance, Sherston does not talk about poetry or writing, things that were at the heart of Sassoon’s life during the war. However, he does talk about the things that Sassoon experienced which prompted him to write certain poems.

On page 123 of this book, Sherston relates an episode that took place in Amiens hospital in 1916, where he had been sent after becoming ill in the trenches. He describes lying in bed listening to another patient across from him delirious and shouting out: “Don’t go out, Dicky, they snipe like hell!” “Curse the wood...Dicky, you fool, don’t go out!” In July 1916 Sassoon wrote the poem ‘Died of Wounds’ which exactly describes this incident.

Later in the book on page 168, Sherston once again found himself in hospital, this time after being shot in the neck. On returning to France he found himself in Rouen. Walking into the guard room at the 5th Infantry Base Depot, he found a group of soldiers standing round a half naked soldier who was kneeling on the floor, crying, swearing and screaming at the war. The man had just been given the news that his brother had been killed in action and he had completely broken down. In February 1917, Sassoon wrote the poem ‘Lamentations’ which again, vividly describes this scene.

In a very important way, Sherston guides us through the experiences which led to some of Sassoon’s greatest war poetry. These three books are no mere fictional autobiography, they tells us many things about Sassoon’s real life that he leaves unsaid in his later volumes of so-called real autobiography.

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