‘Attack’ by Siegfried Sassoon is a descriptive and confronting poem about the reality of war. The poem provides a snapshot from the front line of the trenches, before the soldiers go ‘over the top’ to face the enemy. Cinematic in its scope, Sassoon captivates all the senses, almost making the reader experience the horror first hand. No one reading this account of trench warfare could be unmoved by Sassoon’s depiction of the reality of the tactics employed during World War One.
‘Attack’ by Siegfried Sassoon is a haunting poem that discusses the reality of war and what happens when a soldier is out on the battlefield. Sassoon transitions between describing the battlefield physically, to describing the soldiers physically and eventually conclude with the feelings of the soldiers. Sassoon builds suspense with every line and uses imagery, personification, and enjambment to capture the reader’s attention and as accurately as possible describe the true horrors of being a soldier at war.
The title of the poem is ‘Attack’. This could be due to the nature of the poem itself. Sassoon builds up the suspense throughout the poem and ends with a torturous ending, much like an attack. Otherwise, the title attack could be referring to the feelings of the soldiers. War may be glorified and described as a noble duty, but in reality, it feels and is essentially nothing more than an attack.
‘Attack’ by Siegfried Sassoon contains several themes. The most important theme of the poem is the savagery of war. The poet focuses on the struggle of the soldiers in tough situations even if the end doesn’t guarantee an optimistic outcome. Another important theme of the poem is the futility of war. The theme is present in the following lines, “And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,/ Founders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!” Moreover, there is a theme of machine vs man. In the poem, the machines, having no sensation, are heard as roaring as if the battleground is rather a feast especially arranged for the war-weaponry. In contrast, the soldiers suffer as if their lives don’t matter at all. However, the poet also uses the theme of death, darkness, ruthlessness, and inhumanity in the poem.
Structure and Form
‘Attack’ by Siegfried Sassoon is thirteen lines long. This poem is one line short of a sonnet, and one wonders if this were intentional, as though amid the carnage of World War One, the poet could not make his poem slot neatly into the form of a conventional sonnet. Also unusual is the rhyme scheme which follows the pattern AABA, CBDC, DCDE, DEFF, E. It could be said to mirror an irregular heartbeat, thus symbolizing the men’s terror in battle. It also contains internal rhyme, the addition of which makes it even more strong and powerful. Mostly iambic in rhythm, the majority of lines contain ten or eleven beats. Again the poem is not rigid in its structure.
Analysis, Line by Line
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
The first two lines of ‘Attack’ by Siegfried Sassoon begin by describing the beauty of nature. These lines also evoke the eeriness of the scene. The poet takes us to the center of the action, dragging us blinking into the light, adjusting our eyes to take in the battlefield as the sun rises. The fact that he writes ‘the ridge emerges’ almost makes the ridge an active character in the poem. The adverb ‘glow’ring’ to describe the sun is appropriate because it suggests that the sun itself is outraged by the inhumanity it is forced to witness. This is not a romantic sunrise of pink and golden hues, but instead, the description of “wild purple’ evokes the savagery to come.
Sassoon describes the beautiful scenery of the mountains emerging in the early morning sun. Imagery is used here to describe a very peaceful and calming scenery. Sassoon does not continue this calm tone for long, as in the next line Sassoon quickly shifts his tone and begins to describe what the battlefield looks like.
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
In this section of ‘Attack’, Sassoon explains that the ridge illuminated by the sun is not a calm scene for it is littered with areas of smoldering smoke, most probably from bombings. Not only is the battlefield full of smoke, but the land is also scarred and damaged with debris. As Sassoon continues in his poem, he uses enjambment to connect his thoughts and each line is more drastic than the previous one.
The imagery, in the third line, is that of apocalyptic destruction; desolate with smoke and a sense of pending devastation. Sibilance is abundant, again elongating the sentence. The word ‘shroud’ is chosen with care to illustrate how the smoke distorts the view, rendering it cloudy and unclear, but with the added nuance of a shroud’s double meaning, that of a sheet in which the dead are wrapped. Alas, many of the victims of this battle won’t even be afforded this dignity.
In the fourth line, the landscape takes on the physical characteristics of the men who fight; it too is scarred by the battles. For Sassoon, whether it be the landscape or the vehicles or the soldiers on the front; no one or nothing is spared the suffering. The intensity of the fighting has ripped battlefields to shreds; pockmarked by craters which even tanks cannot pass with ease. Tentatively, they attempt to maneuver but the effort makes them ‘creep and topple’. This use of personification reduces the tanks to the status of insects, like beetles trying to pass an insurmountable hill or mound. Their destination is the ‘wire’, (a word which conjures up its particular horrors) over which the real battle will commence. Finally, the poet places a full stop and we breathe that deep inhalation before making that final surge over the top.
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
In this section of ‘Attack’, Sassoon describes how tanks move forward slowly and prepare for launching its weaponry. There seems to be a personification of tanks as Sassoon does not state that it is the soldiers in the tanks that move the machines forward, but rather, he clearly states that it is the tanks creeping forward. This gives us a feeling of what sort of hardcore inhumane emotions on the battlefield. While in war, tanks must seem like monsters or large creatures with a mind of their own.
Moreover, the battle commences, and the soldiers must leave their shelter and engage in active fighting. Like any movie from this period such as “Atonement” and “Birdsong”, in this poem, there are familiar images of the men as they are mown down by the enemy fire, amid the explosions of shells. No man’s land quickly becomes a burial ground, in no time.
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
In these lines of ‘Attack’, Sassoon uses his most vivid Imagery to describe what can be seen on the battlefield. Men with weapons running forward. What are the men running towards? Are they running towards victory with courage? No, in reality, they are throwing themselves into a bristling fire. This is one way of saying that they are committing suicide. Sassoon states that men are running with small weapons into a bristling fire. It almost seems like a joke, for what will bombs and guns do to save you against a fire? Sassoon makes it clear that the battlefield is not glorious, but rather, it is a hopeless place to be in.
Sassoon is quick to dispel any romantic notion of the troops standing tall and striding purposefully to meet the enemy. Instead, he paints a realistic picture of the impossible situation in which the soldiers find themselves, encumbered, and impeded with equipment. They do not move with stealth and ease; the comma after ‘then,’ indicates their struggle to galvanize themselves into action.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
In these lines of ‘Attack’, Sassoon moves beyond the battle scene and begins describing the actual soldiers who are fighting in the war. He describes their faces as grey, muttering, and masked in fear. The color grey is a symbolism of death or lacking life. The soldiers are so scared and fearful that they are muttering without realizing it. This line truly creates a sense of horror, for by now Sassoon has created a vivid image of what it felt like on the battlefield. Sassoon states that the soldiers leave their trenches to join the war. He associates the trenches with the soldiers as if they are something that the soldiers value which would make sense as they are the safe havens that protect the soldiers from the battlefield.
He strips the men of any gallantry by uncovering their fear, etched into their ‘grey, muttering faces’. He states that they stand ‘in lines’, making us wonder how many are dutifully standing in an orderly queue awaiting annihilation. However, the overwhelming tone is one of anger and sympathy for the waste of these young lives and for the terror that these men feel.
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
The last three lines of ‘Attack’ describe the feeling of the soldiers. Sassoon transitioned through first describing the battlefield, to describing the soldiers and now concludes with describing the emotions of the soldiers. He states that time was blank and busy on their wrists. This means that time had no meaning to the soldiers for there was no time limit to a battle, it could last a few hours or it could last days. What a horrific situation to be in. Sassoon describes that the soldiers still had hope. They were hopeful and they were desperately trying not to get caught. By now Sassoon has successfully succeeded in describing the desperation that the soldiers felt, his last line seals the horror of war.
At this point, he brings in the existential notion that we are all but specks in this gigantic cosmos. While these men suffer unimaginable trauma, time continues to move on, regardless. He highlights this with the monosyllabic line which makes use of personification, as though time is an individual, indifferent to their plight. There is also here the implication that time will tick on after their deaths, oblivious, rendering their sacrifice in vain. The phrase ‘time ticks blanks and busy’ is nursery rhyme like and sounds mellifluous on the ear, unlike the language of the rest of the poem.
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
The last line of ‘Attack’ states that the soldiers were really in a pathetically hopeless situation. Flounders in mud. A flounder is a type of fish, so you can only imagine what the chances are of survival if a flounder finds itself stuck in the mud. Sassoon is stating that going to war is like committing suicide. The last three words, make it stop show how these overtly strong soldiers are left with nothing at the end by crying and begging for the torture to stop.
Moreover, the last line is the most poignant line one the poem, as it shows the desperation of the soldiers’ final moments. This is an inglorious demise; captured here by the use of the adjective ‘furtive’ to describe the fear in their eyes. The adverb ‘grappling’ again shows their frantic movements, and finally the verb ‘Flounders’ is effective in showing their last breaths. After listing the verbs Sassoon has chosen, none of them suggest grace or ease of motion. Every verb, (other than the reference to Time and it’s apathetic attitude to the wholesale slaughter) captures the fear, the indignity, and the diabolical suffering of the men.
‘Attack’ by Siegfried Sassoon contains alliteration and sibilance in the third line. This line renders it thick and dense to read, again evoking the atmosphere for the men as they decipher the scene before them with some difficulty. The proliferation of assonance in the long ‘ou’ vowel sounds draws out the sentence as they survey the wreckage before them; space through which they must shortly navigate. Line five begins with a short, abrupt sentence which is extinguished mid-line with a caesura pause: ‘The barrage roars and lifts’ is a simple phrase which captures the chaos and destruction; ‘roar’ is an example of onomatopoeia, and the two monosyllabic words placed together are most effective.
In the eighth line, by using a list and repetition of the word ‘and’ he makes the reader appreciate how laid down they are by the burden they must carry. However, this repetitive use of the conjunction makes the line an example of polysyndeton. Moreover, Sassoon is seething with rage at the futility of this endeavor and the ensuing waste of life. The word ‘jostle’ with its onomatopoeic sounds captures the energy expelled as they clamor out over the trenches together to meet almost certain death, conjured by the imagery of ‘bristling fire’. The audible quality of this imagery reinforces the frenetic energy and panic the men must have experienced. He makes further use of personification in the final lines concerning hope, which like them, perishes in the mud.
Before the last sentence, everything is noted dispassionately, almost documented in such a way that it is devoid of emotion. This makes the last exclamation all the more poignant, as it comes across as an utterance of sheer desperation, an impassioned plea: ‘O Jesus make it stop!’ Apart from that, The use of ‘O’ adds emphasis as does the plosive sound of ‘stop’ on which the poem ends.
‘Attack’ by Siegfried Sassoon builds suspense and has an emotional impact on the reader most probably because Siegfried Sassoon participated in World War One himself. The poem builds up line after line and concludes with uncontrollable fear and anxiety, emotions that probably raged rampantly on the battlefield. Considering the poem was published in 1918 his words are quite different from the majority of poems related to war published at that time. Most poems glamorized war and made fighting seem like a heroic feat that all young men should desire. Sassoon puts a different spin on war by depicting its harsh reality.
About Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon (1886 -1967) fought in World War One and was awarded the Military Cross for his heroism on the Western Front. He earned the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ for his daring acts of courage. As the war moved on to its final stages he became disillusioned and critical of the tactics employed by his superiors. He became so embittered and filled with disgust at the cavalier attitude towards loss of life that he wrote a public letter in which he railed against the acts of barbarism. The letter was read in the House of Commons and his name became synonymous with protest poetry, one of the most famous of which is ‘Base Details’.
He became close friends with fellow poet Wilfred Owen, while they both recovered from injury in Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland. (Sassoon was said to be suffering from shell-shock). He mentored the younger poet in how to hone his craft. Before his experiences at the front, Owen had produced lyrical poetry after his heroes the Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Under Sassoon’s instruction, his style became more direct, and he became perhaps England’s most famous war poet. However, Siegfried Sassoon died of stomach cancer at 81 years of age.
Like ‘Attack’ by Siegfried Sassoon, here is a list of a few poems that similarly captures the futility of war and the suffering of soldiers on the battlefield.
- Easter, 1916 by William Butler Yeats – In this one of the best poems by William Butler Yeats, the speaker presents the outcome of the war and its effect on people.
- The Bombardment by Amy Lowell – Here, Amy Lowell describes a city that is bombarded and devastated.
- The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson – In this one of the best poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the speaker similarly describes the charge of British soldiers.
- Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg – Here, Isaac Rosenberg takes readers into the deepest and most desolate parts of World War I like Siegfried Sassoon.
You can read about 10 of the Best War Poems here.