Over the holidays I read Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston trilogy, having been tipped off to the novels by my summer’s reading of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill and the strong endorsement of the previously unknown literary gem as one of the most beloved and high-impact pieces published between the two world wars. I’ve known about Sassoon since college when I read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory as well as Robert Grave’s autobiography, Goodbye to all That.
Siegfried Sassoon was one of a select group of young English poets who went to war spouting the florid language of Kipling and Tennyson and returned (if they survived) utterly gutted by the horror of mechanized war. Sassoon survived. So did Graves. But others, such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen did not.
In these centennial anniversary years of the Great War, I realize how deficient the literature I’ve found has served the experience compared to the masterpieces that came out of World War II such as James Jones’ The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Sure, there is All Quiet on the Western Front and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun but until I read Sassoon’s trilogy I hadn’t fully grasped the hellishness of France and the trenches. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August are an excellent historical introduction to the causa belli but in sum I guess the best literature about the First World War was indeed the war poetry.
Sassoon was raised by a spinster aunt in Kent’s Weald, the iconic southeastern rolling landscape that personifies the English cliche. Fussell, in his introduction to Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man rightfully points out Sassoon’s intense love affair with the landscape of Kent and his almost erotic evocation of a pre-war life spent playing cricket on village greens and learning how to ride with the fox hunt through coverts and over the fences of the local farms. Sassoon, who dropped out of Cambridge without completing a degree, had just enough of an inheritance to be idle and spend his days riding horses and getting fitted with new boots and pink hunting coats. The three books are a barely fictionalized autobiography.
Sassoon ends the first volume — Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man — when he volunteers for the infantry as a junior officer. The second volume, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is set in the trenches of northern France and tells the story of his acts of reckless heroism, where he decided that rather than give into the fear and horror he would affect an insouciance that led his soldiers to nickname him “Mad Jack” and regard him as a good luck officer willing to take chances rather than cower in a trench.
Sassoon was wounding and returned to England, was decorated as a hero, returned, was wounded again, and during his convalescence decided to publish a protest against the war with the support of the pacifist mathematician Bertrand Russell.
“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
“On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.”
Sassoon sent that declaration to his commanding officer, threw his Military Cross medal into the Mersey River, and waited for a reaction. The reaction from the army was more genteel embarrassment for Sassoon than outrage. Before he could be tried for treason a friend intervened and declared Siegfried was unhinged and needed to be committed to an asylum. Sassoon was packed off to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland where he was treated by Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, the pioneering genius in the treatment of shell shock as PTSD was known at the time. Through his work with Rivers, Sassoon came to the conclusion that the only rational decision he could make was to ask for a return to the front lines of the war, and so he was returned to the front for a third time, an experience covered in the final volume of the trilogy: Sherston’s Progress which was published in 1936, completed the series that began in 1928.
These books were beloved at the time of their publication and it surprises me they aren’t still read or better known in the U.S.. In my estimation the first volume is my favorite because of its amazing affection for the culture that existed before the war. I’ve read that Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is a similar expression of deep love for “the shire,” that bucolic country life of England that looms so large in my American mind as the “British Cliche” but which evidently did exist and lives on in the writings of Sassoon and others.