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Siegfried Sassoon

Born on 8th September 1886, Siegfried Loraine Sassoon was the second of three sons of Alfred and Theresa Sassoon. His parents separated when he was four years old, leaving his mother to raise her three sons alone. Nonetheless, Sassoon spent a happy and secure childhood and was educated at Marlborough before going on to Clare College, Cambridge, although he failed to obtain a degree. Back home in Kent, Sassoon lived the life of a country squire, as well as writing poetry, some of which was shown to the influential art collector, Edward Marsh, who quickly became friends with Sassoon, introducing him to several other literary celebrities, including Rupert Brooke.

Upon the outbreak of war, Sassoon immediately enlisted as a Trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry, but a bad fall while riding left him with a broken arm. When he had recovered from this injury, Sassoon transferred to the infantry and was commissioned into the Royal Welch Fusiliers in May 1915, leaving for France that November, following training.

Sassoon’s war soon became personal. He received news of the death of his brother Hamo in Gallipoli in November 1915, then in March 1916, his close friend Second Lieutenant David Thomas was shot and killed. The tone of Sassoon’s poetry changed from this moment on, as did his attitude to the war: he wanted to avenge these deaths, regardless of his own personal safety and his exploits earned him the nickname “Mad Jack”, as well as a Military Cross.

In mid-1916, Sassoon was sent back to England, suffering from trench fever, and didn’t return to the trenches until February 1917, where he participated in the First Battle of the Scarpe and was wounded in the shoulder. By the end of April, Sassoon was back in England again.

While convalescing from his wound, Sassoon became more and more embittered about he war and also fell under the influence of a group of pacifists, including John Middleton Murry and Bertrand Russell. The culmination of these events was Sassoon’s now famous Declaration against the validity of the war. Once knowledge of his Declaration became public, his friends, especially Marsh and Graves, tried to convince him that his aim of being court-martialled would never be permitted. Sassoon therefore, reluctantly, agreed to attend a medical board and, following evidence from Robert Graves, was declared as suffering from shell-shock. On 23rd July, he was admitted to Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh, where he came under the care of Dr. William H. R. Rivers.

While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon wrote some of his most affecting and effective poetry. He also met Wilfred Owen (a fellow patient) and the two quickly became friends. Sassoon’s influence over Owen’s poetry is obvious, but Owen also idolised the older poet and war hero.

Under the influence of Rivers’s treatment, Sassoon came to realise that he could no longer tolerate remaining safely in Scotland while his men were suffering in France. On 26th November, he was declared fit for active service and left for Palestine in mid-February 1918, only returning to France in May. On 13th July, Sassoon was in No Man’s Land when he stood up and removed his helmet, whereupon he was shot in the head. He later discovered that it was one of his own men who had delivered the blow, believing him to be an advancing German. The wound was not fatal, but resulted in the end of the Sassoon’s war and he was placed on indefinite sick leave, eventually being discharged from the army in March 1919, with the rank of Captain.

Sassoon waited for several months to hear from Owen and it was quite some while before he heard of the younger poet’s death on 4th November 1918. Immediately after the war, Sassoon threw himself into literary work, meeting Thomas Hardy and T. E. Lawrence, among others, and becoming literary editor of the Daily Herald, in which position he was able to advance the career of Edmund Blunden, who became a lifelong friend.

In 1928, Sassoon began writing his autobiographies, initially as fictionalised accounts and then in non-fiction versions, as well as continuing to write poetry. During the 1920’s, Sassoon’s homosexuality became a more important part of his life and he embarked upon a few romantic liaisons, most notably with Stephen Tennant. Eventually, however, Sassoon tired of the fickle nature of these relationships and he married Hester Gatty in December 1933. They lived at Heytesbury House in Wiltshire and had one son, named George, in 1936. The marriage did not last, however, and the couple separated in 1945. In 1957 Sassoon converted to the Roman Catholic faith and he died on September 1st 1967.

Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry is often – and unjustly – eclipsed by that of Wilfred Owen and yet Sassoon’s poems contain a brutal honesty that is lacking from almost every other poet in this genre. This, mingled with his humorous, ironic and occasionally lyrical style allows us to see the effects of the war: the anger, the waste, the bitterness; but underneath all of that, we can see the unutterable sadness of the “world’s worst wound” as Sassoon called the conflict, and a love for his fellow sufferers that few would succeed in conveying so beautifully or so honestly.