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, 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, and in Cambridge, 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 hunting, playing cricket, and writing verse, aided throughout by his wealthy aunt’s inheritance – Sassoon, being from a wealthy family, had never needed to work and lived mostly on his small private fortune, and the inheritance from his late aunt.
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 of patriotism. He broke his arm and spent the rest of 1915 convalescing.
Shortly after his younger brother was killed in Gallipoli, Sassoon was sent to France. There, he met Robert Graves, 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. He received the name ‘Mad Jack’ from the soldiers that he led – inspired mostly for his suicidally insane 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 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 Hospital, where his official diagnosis was shellshock. It remains unclear whether or not Sassoon was actually suffering from shellshock, 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.
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.
Sassoon returned to active duty, where he was almost immediately sent back to convalescing as a British soldier mistook him for a German soldier, and shot him in the head.
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.
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.