(8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was an English poet, author and soldier. Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, he became one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirised the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon's view, were responsible for a vainglorious war.
Let no one ever, from henceforth say one word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell, and those who institute it are criminals. Were there even anything to say for it, it should not be said; for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.
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 this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell, While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke. He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear, Sick for escape,— loathing the strangled horror And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans... Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned, Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.
Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.In the great hour of destiny they stand, Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows. :"s:Dreamers|Dreamers"
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns beginThey think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives. :"Dreamers"
If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath, I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base, And speed glum heroes up the line of death.
I'd say — "I used to know his father well; Yes, we've lost heavily in this last scrap." And when the war is done and youth stone dead I'd toddle safely home and die — in bed.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eyeWho cheer when soldier lads march by,Sneak home and pray you'll never knowThe hell where youth and laughter go.
(8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was an English poet, author and soldier. Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, he became one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirised the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon's view, were responsible for a vainglorious war. He later won acclaim for his prose work, notably his three-volume fictionalised autobiography, collectively known as the "Sherston Trilogy".
Early life and educationSiegfried Sassoon was born and grew up in the neo-gothic mansion named "Weirleigh" (after its builder, Harrison Weir
), in Matfield
, Kent, to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother. His father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon (1861–1895), son of Sassoon David Sassoon
, was a member of the wealthy Baghdadi Jewish
Sassoon merchant family
. For marrying outside the faith he was disinherited. His mother, Theresa
, belonged to the Thornycroft family
, sculptors responsible for many of the best-known statues in London—her brother was Sir Hamo Thornycroft
. There was no German ancestry in Siegfried's family; his mother named him Siegfried because of her love of Wagner
's operas. His middle name, Loraine, was the surname of a clergyman with whom she was friendly.
Sassoon was the second of three sons, the others being Michael and Hamo. When he was four years old his parents separated. During his father's weekly visits to the boys, Theresa locked herself in the drawing room. In 1895 Alfred Sassoon died of tuberculosis
Sassoon was educated at The New Beacon Preparatory School
, Kent; at Marlborough College
, Marlborough, Wiltshire (where he was a member of Cotton House), and at Clare College, Cambridge
, where from 1905 to 1907 he read history. He went down from Cambridge without a degree and spent the next few years hunting, playing cricket and writing verse: some he published privately. Since his father had been disinherited from the Sassoon fortune for marrying a non-Jew, Siegfried had only a small private fortune that allowed him to live modestly without having to earn a living (however, he would later be left a generous legacy by an aunt, Rachel Beer
, allowing him to buy the great estate of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire). His first published success, The Daffodil Murderer (1913), was a parody of John Masefield
's The Everlasting Mercy. Robert Graves
, in Good-Bye to All That describes it as a "parody of Masefield which, midway through, had forgotten to be a parody and turned into rather good Masefield."
Sassoon expressed his opinions on the political situation before the onset of the First World War—"France was a lady, Russia
was a bear, and performing in the county cricket
team was much more important than either of them". Sassoon wanted to play for Kent County Cricket Club
; Kent Captain Frank Marchant
was a neighbour of Sassoon. Siegfried often turned out for Bluehouses at the Nevill Ground, where he sometimes played alongside Arthur Conan Doyle
. He also played cricket for his house at Marlborough College, once taking 7 wickets for 18 runs. Although an enthusiast, Sassoon was not good enough to play for Kent, but he played cricket for Matfield, and later for the Downside Abbey team, continuing into his seventies.
, whom Siegfried had briefly met, died on the way there.) Hamo's death hit Siegfried very hard. He was commissioned into 3rd Battalion (Special Reserve), Royal Welch Fusiliers
as a second lieutenant
on 29 May 1915, and in November was sent to the 1st Battalion in France. There he met Robert Graves
and they became close friends. United by their poetic vocation, they often read and discussed one another's work. Though this did not have much perceptible influence on Graves's poetry, his views on what may be called 'gritty realism' profoundly affected Sassoon's concept of what constituted poetry. He soon became horrified by the realities of war, and the tone of his writing changed completely: where his early poems exhibit a Romantic
, dilettantish sweetness, his war poetry moves to an increasingly discordant music, intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propaganda
. Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time, and this philosophy of 'no truth unfitting' had a significant effect on the movement towards Modernist poetry.
Sassoon's periods of duty on the Western Front
were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed, but vainglorious, capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line
. Armed with grenades he scattered 60 German soldiers:
He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz woodSassoon's bravery was inspiring to the extent that soldiers of his company said that they felt confident only when they were accompanied by him. He often went out on night-raids and bombing patrols and demonstrated ruthless efficiency as a company commander. Deepening depression at the horror and misery the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed "Mad Jack" by his men for his near-suicidal exploits. On 27 July 1916 he was awarded the Military CrossMametz woodMametz Wood was the objective of the 38th Division during the First Battle of the Somme. The attack occurred in a Northerly direction over a ridge, focussed on the German positions in the wood between 7 July and 12 July 1916. The attack of the 7 July failed to reach the wood before the men were...
had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. 'British patrols' were Siegfried and his book of poems. 'I'd have got you a D.S.O.Distinguished Service OrderThe Distinguished Service Order is a military decoration of the United Kingdom, and formerly of other parts of the British Commonwealth and Empire, awarded for meritorious or distinguished service by officers of the armed forces during wartime, typically in actual combat.Instituted on 6 September...
, if you'd only shown more sense,' stormed Stockwell.
; the citation read:
described Sassoon as engaging in suicidal feats of bravery. Sassoon was also later (unsuccessfully) recommended for the Victoria Cross
Despite his decoration and reputation, he decided in 1917 to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas
(called "Dick Tiltwood" in the Sherston trilogy
). He would spend years trying to overcome his grief.
At the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty; instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell
and Lady Ottoline Morrell
, he sent a letter to his commanding officer, titled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. Forwarded to the press and read out in Parliament by a sympathetic MP, the letter was seen by some as treasonous ("I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority") or at best condemnatory of the war government's motives ("I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest"). Rather than court-martial
Sassoon, the Under-Secretary of State for War
, Ian Macpherson decided that he was unfit for service and had him sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh
, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia
"). Before declining to return to active service he had thrown the ribbon from his Military Cross into the river Mersey
The novel Regeneration
, by Pat Barker
, is a fictionalised account of this period in Sassoon's life, and was made into a film
starring James Wilby
as Sassoon and Jonathan Pryce
as W. H. R. Rivers
, the psychiatrist responsible for Sassoon's treatment. Rivers became a kind of surrogate father to the troubled young man, and his sudden death in 1922 was a major blow to Sassoon.
At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen
, a fellow poet who would eventually exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry. A manuscript copy of Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth
containing Sassoon's handwritten amendments survives as testimony to the extent of his influence and is currently on display at London's Imperial War Museum
. To all intents and purposes, Sassoon became to Owen "Keats
and Christ and Elijah"; surviving documents demonstrate clearly the depth of Owen's love and admiration for him. Both men returned to active service in France, but Owen was killed in 1918. Sassoon, despite all this, was promoted to lieutenant
, and having spent some time out of danger in Palestine
, eventually returned to the Front. On 13 July 1918, Sassoon was almost immediately wounded again—by friendly fire
after he was shot in the head by a fellow British soldier who had mistaken him for a German near Arras
, France. As a result, he spent the remainder of the war in Britain. By this time he had been promoted acting captain
. He relinquished his commission on health grounds on 12 March 1919, but was allowed to retain the rank of captain. After the war, Sassoon was instrumental in bringing Owen's work to the attention of a wider audience. Their friendship is the subject of Stephen MacDonald
's play, Not About Heroes
, where he spent more time visiting literary friends than studying, he dabbled briefly in the politics of the Labour movement, and in 1919 took up a post as literary editor of the socialist Daily Herald. During his period at the Herald, Sassoon was responsible for employing several eminent names as reviewers, including E. M. Forster
and Charlotte Mew
, and commissioned original material from "names" like Arnold Bennett
and Osbert Sitwell
. His artistic interests extended to music. While at Oxford he was introduced to the young William Walton
, whose friend and patron he became. Walton later dedicated his Portsmouth Point
overture to Sassoon in recognition of his financial assistance and moral support.
Sassoon later embarked on a lecture tour of the USA, as well as travelling in Europe and throughout Britain. He acquired a car, a gift from the publisher Frankie Schuster, and became renowned among his friends for his lack of driving skill, but this did not prevent him making full use of the mobility it gave him.
Meanwhile, he was beginning to express his homosexuality more openly, embarking on an affair with artist Gabriel Atkin, to whom he had been introduced by mutual friends. During his US tour, he met a young actor who treated him callously. Nevertheless, he was adored by female audiences, including one at Vassar College
Sassoon was a great admirer of the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan
. On a visit to Wales in 1923, he paid a pilgrimage to Vaughan's grave at Llansanffraid, Powys
, and there wrote one of his best-known peacetime poems, At the Grave of Henry Vaughan. The deaths of three of his closest friends, Edmund Gosse
, Thomas Hardy
and Frankie Schuster (the publisher), within a short space of time, came as another serious setback to his personal happiness.
At the same time, Sassoon was preparing to take a new direction. While in America, he had experimented with a novel. In 1928, he branched out into prose, with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man
, the anonymously-published first volume of a fictionalised autobiography, which was almost immediately accepted as a classic, bringing its author new fame as a humorous writer. The book won the 1928 James Tait Black Award
for fiction. Sassoon followed it with Memoirs of an Infantry Officer
(1930) and Sherston's Progress (1936). In later years, he revisited his youth and early manhood with three volumes of genuine autobiography, which were also widely acclaimed. These were The Old Century, The Weald of Youth and Siegfried's Journey.
; Novello's former lover, the actor Glen Byam Shaw
; German aristocrat Prince Philipp of Hesse; the writer Beverley Nichols; and an effete aristocrat, the Hon. Stephen Tennant
. Only the last of these made a permanent impression, though Shaw remained his close friend throughout his life. In September 1931, Sassoon rented and began to live at Fitz House, Teffont Magna
, Wiltshire. In December 1933, to many people's surprise, he married Hester Gatty, who was many years his junior; this led to the birth of a child, something which he had long craved. This child, their only child, George
(1936–2006) became a scientist, linguist and author, and was adored by Siegfried, who wrote several poems addressed to him. However, the marriage broke down after World War II, Sassoon apparently unable to find a compromise between the solitude he enjoyed and the companionship he craved.
Separated from his wife in 1945, Sassoon lived in seclusion at Heytesbury in Wiltshire
, although he maintained contact with a circle which included E. M. Forster
and J. R. Ackerley
. One of his closest friends was the young cricketer Dennis Silk
. He formed a close friendship with Vivien Hancock, headmistress of Greenways School at Ashton Gifford
, which his son George
attended. The relationship provoked Hester to make some strong accusations against Vivien Hancock, who responded with the threat of legal action. Sassoon was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1951 New Year Honours
. Towards the end of his life, he converted to Roman Catholicism. He had hoped that Ronald Knox
, a Roman Catholic priest and writer whom he admired, would instruct him in the faith, but Knox was too ill to do so.. The priest Sebastian Moore was chosen to instruct him instead, and Sassoon was admitted to the faith at Downside Abbey
, close to his home. He also paid regular visits to the nuns at Stanbrook Abbey
, and the abbey press printed commemorative editions of some of his poems. During this time he also became interested in the supernatural
, and joined the Ghost Club.
Siegfried Sassoon died one week before his 81st birthday, of stomach cancer, and is buried at St Andrew's Church, Mells
, Somerset, close to Ronald Knox.
LegacyOn 11 November 1985, Sassoon was among sixteen Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey
's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by friend and fellow War poet Wilfred Owen
. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."
Siegfried Sassoon's only child, George Sassoon
, died of cancer in 2006. George had three children, two of whom were killed in a car crash in 1996. His daughter by his first marriage, Kendall Sassoon, is Patron-in-Chief of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, and a Lady Associate Royal Welch Fusilier.
In May 2007 Sassoon's Military Cross was put up for sale by his family. It was bought by the Royal Welch Fusiliers
for display at their museum in Caernarfon
In June 2009, the University of Cambridge announced plans to purchase a valuable archive of Sassoon's papers from his family, to be added to the university library's existing Sassoon collection. On 4 November 2009 it was reported that this purchase would be supported by £550,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund
, meaning that the University still needed to raise a further £110,000 on top of the money already received in order to meet the full £1.25 million asking price. The funds were successfully raised, and in December 2009 it was announced that the University had received the papers. Included in the collection are war diaries kept by Sassoon while he served on the Western Front
and in Palestine
, a draft of "A Soldier’s Declaration" (1917), notebooks from his schooldays, and post-war journals. Other items in the collection include love letters to his wife Hester, and photographs and letters from other writers. Sassoon was an undergraduate at the university, as well as being made an honorary fellow of Clare College, and the collection will be housed at the Cambridge University Library
. As well as private individuals, funding came from the Monument Trust, the JP Getty Jr Trust, and Sir Siegmund Warburg's Voluntary Settlement.
In 2010, Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, Memory and War, a major exhibition of Sassoon's life and archive, was held at Cambridge University.
Several of Sassoon's poems have been set to music, some during his lifetime, notably by Cyril Rootham
- The Daffodil Murderer (John Richmond: 1913)
- The Old HuntsmanThe Old HuntsmanThe Old Huntsman is a 1917 collection of poems by Siegfried Sassoon and the name of the first poem in the collection....
- The General (Denmark Hill Hospital, April 1917)
- Does it Matter? (written: 1917)
- Counter-Attack and Other Poems (Heinemann: 1918)
- The Hero [Henry Holt, 1918]
- Picture-Show (Heinemann: 1919)
- War Poems (Heinemann: 1919)
- Aftermath (Heinemann: 1920)
- Recreations (privately printed: 1923)
- Lingual Exercises for Advanced Vocabularians (privately printed: 1925)
- Selected Poems (Heinemann: 1925)
- Satirical Poems (Heinemann: 1926)
- The Heart's Journey (Heinemann: 1928)
- Poems by Pinchbeck Lyre (DuckworthGerald DuckworthGerald de l'Etang Duckworth was a British publisher.-Background and early life:Duckworth was a son of Herbert Duckworth, a London barrister, by his wife Julia Jackson. His middle name, de l'Etang, was the surname of one of his mother's ancestors, Antoine de l'Etang, a page to Queen Marie Antoinette...
- The Road to Ruin (Faber and FaberFaber and FaberFaber and Faber Limited, often abbreviated to Faber, is an independent publishing house in the UK, notable in particular for publishing a great deal of poetry and for its former editor T. S. Eliot. Faber has a rich tradition of publishing a wide range of fiction, non fiction, drama, film and music...
- Vigils (Heinemann: 1935)
- Rhymed Ruminations (Faber and Faber: 1940)
- Poems Newly Selected (Faber and Faber: 1940)
- Collected Poems (Faber and Faber: 1947)
- Common Chords (privately printed: 1950/1951)
- Emblems of Experience (privately printed: 1951)
- The Tasking (privately printed: 1954)
- Sequences (Faber and Faber: 1956)
- Lenten Illuminations (Downside Abbey: 1959)
- The Path to Peace (Stanbrook Abbey Press: 1960)
- Collected Poems 1908-1956 (Faber and Faber: 1961)
- The War Poems ed. Rupert Hart-DavisRupert Hart-DavisSir Rupert Charles Hart-Davis was an English publisher, editor and man of letters. He founded the publishing company Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd...
(Faber and Faber: 1983)
- Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting ManMemoirs of a Fox-Hunting ManMemoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is a novel by Siegfried Sassoon, first published in 1928 by Faber and Faber. It won both the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, being immediately recognised as a classic of English literature...
(Faber & Gwyer: 1928)
- Memoirs of an Infantry OfficerMemoirs of an Infantry OfficerMemoirs of an Infantry Officer is a novel by Siegfried Sassoon, first published in 1930. It is a fictionalised account of Sassoon's own life during and immediately after World War I...
(Faber and Faber: 1930)
- Sherston's ProgressSherston's ProgressSherston's Progress is the final book of Siegfried Sassoon's semi-autobiographical trilogy. It is preceded by Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer....
(Faber and Faber: 1936)
- Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (Faber and Faber: 1937)
- The Old Century and seven more years (Faber and Faber: 1938)
- On Poetry (University of Bristol Press: 1939)
- The Weald of Youth (Faber and Faber: 1942)
- Siegfried's Journey (Faber and Faber: 1946)
- Meredith (Constable: 1948) - Biography of George MeredithGeorge MeredithGeorge Meredith, OM was an English novelist and poet of the Victorian era.- Life :Meredith was born in Portsmouth, England, a son and grandson of naval outfitters. His mother died when he was five. At the age of 14 he was sent to a Moravian School in Neuwied, Germany, where he remained for two...
- Profile at Poetry Foundation
- Profile at Poetry Archive. Biography and poems written and audio
- The Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship
- BBC: In our time. (Audio discussion 45 mins) with bibliography and links. BBC interview 1 January 1967 (Audio, 7 mins)
- WGBH Forum Network lecture given by Sassoon biographer Max Egremont (Audio and video, 1hr)
- Siegfried Sassoon collection of papers, circa 1905-1975, bulk (1915-1951) (669 items), New York Public LibraryNew York Public LibraryThe New York Public Library is the largest public library in North America and is one of the United States' most significant research libraries...
- Papers of Siegfried Sassoon, Cambridge University LibraryCambridge University LibraryThe Cambridge University Library is the centrally-administered library of Cambridge University in England. It comprises five separate libraries:* the University Library main building * the Medical Library...
- Sassoon in the Great War Archive, Oxford University/JISC.
- BBC Audio slideshow. Sassoon's papers at Cambridge University Library.
- Elizabeth Whitcomb Houghton Collection, Sassoon archive