Siegfried Sassoon

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Sassoon

SIEGFRIED SASSOON 1886-1967

Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886. When war was declared he first enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry before transferring to the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He earned the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ for his courage on the Western Front.

In June 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for assisting a wounded man back to the British lines while under enemy fire. Sassoon was wounded himself in April 1917 and was sent back to England for recuperation. He had developed a sense of unease concerning the conduct of the war that led him to publish a letter in The Times suggesting that the war was being deliberately prolonged by the authorities.

Expecting a courts martial, the unexpected intervention of another poet, Robert Graves altered events so that he was deemed to be suffering from shell shock and so was sent to the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Scotland to recover. It was while at Craiglockhart that Sassoon met and formed a friendship with Wilfred Owen, who, with the aid of Sassoon’s mentoring and encouragement became a great poet himself.

Eventually Sassoon was well enough to return to active duty and was posted to Palestine for a short time before returning to the Western Front. It was here that he was accidentally shot by one of his own men while returning from a patrol which effectively ended his wartime active service, during which he was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross.

Sassoon was a great poet and one of the three great post war prose writers, along with Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden. After the war Sassoon became as famous for his prose writing as he had been for his war poetry.

He wrote three semi-fictional autobiographies (The Sherston Trilogy) Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress, loosely based on his pre war and war time experiences, after which he wrote his true autobiography in three parts, The Old Century and Seven More Years, The Weald Of Youth and Siegfried’s Journey.


It is important to add here a rider to the above statement. Many people call the ‘Sherston’ trilogy “fictional”. It is true that Sassoon changed the names of characters and places, and also wrote his family out of history, instead substituting a maiden aunt to look after him in his youth. Most of the experiences he describes however are true, the falsity of these early memoirs can be attributed more to what he left out; for instance, Sherston shows no interest in poetry.

The wartime experiences that Sassoon describes in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress are essentially a true record of events. In the third volume of his real autobiography, Siegfried’s Journey 1916-1920, Sassoon states more than once that certain events had already been recounted by Sherston. For instance:

    “My experiences during the next three weeks, which ended in my being sent to a shell-shock hospital, have already been related in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. I am thankful not to be obliged to drag my mind through the details again.” Page 55.

And:

    “That inverterate memoirizer George Sherston has already narrated a sequence of infantry experiences - from the end of 1917 - which were terminated on July 13th, [1918] by a bullet wound in the head. His experiences were mine, so I am spared the effort of describing them.” Page 69.

It would be a great generalisation, but nevertheless basically true to say that a reader interested in Sassoon’s war time experiences should read the Sherston memoirs, and those interested in the poetry should read the second set of memoirs. It hardly needs to be said that to get the full picture, both should be sought out and devoured with equal delight.


Sassoon died in September, 1967, a week before his 81st birthday and is buried in St. Andrews churchyard in Mells, Somerset. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were the two great writers of First World War protest poetry. Below is one of Sassoon’s short, but most well-known poems.

    The General

    “Good morning; good morning” the General said
    when we met last week on our way to the line.
    Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
    and we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
    “He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
    as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
    But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Sassoon himself said about his anti war poetry that he deliberately wrote them to disturb complacency. He wanted to shock the complacent public in England to the realities of war, to the inefficiency of the Country’s higher command and the great suffering endured by the men in the trenches.

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