Siegfried Sassoon was a renowned British poet, writer, and soldier who lived from 1886 to 1967. He is best known for his poems and writings about the First World War and the horrors that befell the men who risked their lives for their country. Siegfried’s journey started by enlisting for active service in the British Army in 1914 and serving in France as a captain. His experiences in the trenches profoundly influenced his poetry, leading him to become one of the most significant voices of the war.
Some of his most notable poems are ‘The Old Huntsman,’ a collection of poems released in 1917, ‘Suicide in the Trenches,’ ‘Counter Attack,’ ‘The Death Bed,’ ‘Attack,’ and many other poems. His prose was known for its vivid imagery that would conjure up nail-biting scenes in the reader’s head, along with a hint of satire, which would contrast the horror of war with the absurdity of bureaucracy.
He even became a novelist, releasing a number of autobiographies such as; ‘The Memoirs of George Sherston,’ ‘Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man,’ and ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.‘
Explore more of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems.
Siegfried Sassoon was born on 8th September 1886, in Matfield, Kent, England, in a Gothic-style mansion named after its builder, Harrison Weir. Today, Weirleigh is for sale, and it is evidenced in several biographies as one of the deepest loves of Sassoon’s life. According to Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Weirleigh was Sassoon’s ‘background to all my dreams, both pleasant and unpleasant.’
He was born into two colliding cultures: his father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon, a wealthy Jewish businessman, was a member of the Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family, who had made their fortune originally in shipping and opium production in China and India. Later on, they were to construct the Sassoon Docks in India, though it was their merchant empire that made them one of the wealthiest families at the time. Sassoon’s mother, on the other hand, was English and Catholic and a member of the Thornycroft family, whose statues were renowned throughout London. For marrying his mother, Alfred Sassoon was disinherited from the family.
The marriage was short-lived. At four years old, his parents separated, and Theresa Sassoon would lock herself in the drawing room every time Alfred visited, which was not very often. Her love of Wagnerian opera led to Siegfried’s name.
Following a tumultuous childhood, Siegfried grew up a little bit wild. He was educated in Kent at New Beacon School and Marlborough College and later in Cambridge at Clare College, where he was supposed to read history, though he left the school without managing to attain a degree. The next few years of his life were spent wasted on a life of a country gentleman, in which he would spend his time hunting, playing cricket, and writing verse, aided throughout by his wealthy aunt’s inheritance – Sassoon, being from a wealthy Jewish family, had never needed to work and lived mostly on his small private fortune, and the inheritance from his late aunt.
First World War
Sassoon was infamously disinterested in war from the outset. His true love, at the time, was cricket, and he was said to have written, ‘France was a lady, Russia was a bear, and performing in the county cricket team was much more important than either of them.’ However, this feeling would only last until the outset of World War I. He was one of the victims of patriotism – British propaganda ensured that a large number of young men joined up, without the draft in place, to fight the war on all fronts. As soon as the German threat loomed, Sassoon was one of those young men who joined up with the Sussex Yeomanry the day that the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.
It was a short story about patriotism. He broke his arm and spent the rest of 1915 recovering. Shortly after, in April 1915, his younger brother Hamo was killed in Gallipoli, and Sassoon was sent to France. There, he met fellow poet Robert Graves, who had an influential effect on his later poetry – his horror at the ongoing warfare inspired the change from his Romantic ideals (the same ones that had pushed him into joining up with the Sussex Yeomanry) to a far more realistic bent. It is this war poetry that, today, fans of Sassoon remember.
Sassoon was not without due praise. Some might say that he was a hero during the war. He received the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ from the soldiers that he led – inspired mostly by his near-suicidal exploits during the war. He single-handedly captured – using grenades – a sixty-strong German trench near the Hindenburg line, after which he sat down in the middle of the trench and started to read a book of poetry that he had taken with him. Becoming engrossed in his book, he forgot to report in and thus delayed a later attack by two hours.
Colonel Stockwell, his direct superior, was reported to have raged, ‘I’d have gotten you a D.S.O, if you’d only shown more sense.’
He was later awarded the Military Cross for remaining under fire for an hour and a half, collecting and bringing in killed and wounded British soldiers.
In 1917, Sassoon refused to return to duty. Reeling from the death of his friend David Cuthbert Thomas – a soldier who was shot in the throat, managed to walk to a first-aid post, and died choking on his own blood – after a period of sympathetic leave, Sassoon forwarded a letter to his commanding officer a letter of protest that stated, ‘I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’ Determined unfit for duty, Sassoon was sent, as punishment, to Craiglockhart War Hospital, where his official diagnosis was neurasthenia or shell shock. It remains unclear whether or not Sassoon was actually suffering from the ailment or whether it was merely British anti-neurasthenia sentiment at play, though given the insane feats that Sassoon performed and the vicious conditions of the British during World War I, he was perhaps more than a little bit affected by the war.
Sassoon returned to active duty, where he was almost immediately sent back to recover as a British soldier mistook him for a German soldier and shot him in the head.
At Craiglockhart, he met Wilfred Owen, pushing him to publish more poetry and helping to criticize the ones that he did write. He also met W.H.R. Rivers, the psychiatrist responsible for treating patients at Craiglockhart and a heavy friend of Sassoon’s.
After the war, Sassoon returned to writing and dabbled a little in politics. He published his first book, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, anonymously and received critical acclaim for it, bringing him fame as a humorous writer.
After releasing a number of well-received autobiographical novels, he became the literary editor of the Daily Herald.
He also pursued a number of romantic love affairs with men before finally settling down to marry Hester Gatty, many years his junior, who gave him a child that he worshipped. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1951 and converted to Roman Catholicism.
Sassoon died at 80 years old of stomach cancer.
Sassoon is one of the sixteen Great War poets commended on a slate stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. He was also the subject of Memorial Tablet, an audio CD of readings by Sassoon that was recorded during the late 1950s.
His son, George Sassoon, died of cancer in 2006.
In 2007, Sassoon’s Military Cross – whose ribbon he had thrown into the river Mersey – was discovered in an attic in 2007, where it was put up for sale and subsequently bought by the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Siegfried Sassoon is best known for his vivid war poems centered around his experience of the First World War. He actively served in the trenches from 1914 to 1917, gaining a heroic reputation with his fellow soldiers, along with garnering an iconic status in literary history, producing some of the greatest war poems ever written.
Siegfried Sassoon was labeled ‘Mad Jack’ by his fellow soldiers for the heroic, and sometimes near-suicidal, acts he would undertake during The Great War. His actions would result in him receiving the Military Cross as recognition for his bravery.
Over the course of World War I, Siegfried Sassoon can be seen to develop a greater anti-war stance as time progressed. He eventually ended up writing an anti-war protest letter that declared his refusal to fight due to the powers that were not ending a war that could have been ended.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote a whole host of famous poems that still stand the test of time. However, arguably his greatest poem was ‘Suicide in the Trenches‘ as it represents his body of work excellently. The poem depicts the futile, horrific, and bloody journey of a soldier in the war.
Siegfried Sassoon’s homosexuality was, for a long period, his ‘dark secret.’ It came to light that he had a number of love affairs with some significant people. One of the most notable names was Prince Phillip of Hesse, who Sassoon met in Rome. Remarkably, Phillip was, in fact, the Kaiser’s nephew.