‘Counter-Attack’ is perhaps Siegfried Sassoon’s longest poem, at forty lines set in three stanzas, with an alternating rhyme scheme. It describes a failed counter-attack on the German line. Sassoon is perhaps not as well-known as his counterpart and sometimes-protégé Wilfred Owen. However, Sassoon’s war poems are hauntingly similar. It is worth pointing out that the two often influenced each other and that where one would stumble, the other would come to their aid – this might be the basis for the idea that the two of them were lovers. They differed in personality, but their poetry matched on an almost primordial level for the most part.
Sassoon fought in the Great War as a second lieutenant and was a decorated war hero. This did not stop him from writing a letter to his commanding officer with his resignation from the army, the most of which can be condensed into the powerful line, “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.” He was put in Craiglockhart for this letter, where he met and influenced Wilfred Owen. Sassoon’s poem, ‘Counter-Attack,’ can be read in full here.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
We’d gained our first objective hours beforeWhile dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,Pallid, unshaven and thirsty, blind with smoke.(…)And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!
It is evident from the very first stanza that there is a sense of hopefulness – or rather, there is a sense of attempting hopefulness, even when the descriptions are set at parallels with the air of hopeful anticipation. The starting line delivers the reader into the situation with an almost soldierly lack of fuss – ‘we’d gained our first objective hours before.’ The use of the word ‘objective,’ while also helping the atmosphere of the poem – it is, after all, a war poem – helps nearly dehumanizing its subjects. ‘Objective’ implies an almost scientific approach to the idea of war. Still, then as the poem continues, we see how this is completely at odds with the imagery that Siegfried Sassoon provides.
‘While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes’ – even nature seems confused as to the war. It is perhaps tying back to older methods of poetry, where nature would reflect human characteristics in order to deliver the poet’s message. This was known as the pathetic fallacy. The description of the soldiers helps to strengthen this allusion: they’re practically stunned, ‘pallid, unshaven, and thirsty, blind with smoke.’
‘Things seemed all right at first.’ – that sense of tentative hopefulness appears again in this line, lending the poem a subtle edge of dread to it. Sassoon goes on to show that the British army’s line is holding with a flurry of activity. Everyone seems busy, ‘we held their line / with bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed, / And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.’ The soldiers are planning to make their base here, where they have held the enemy’s line.
The sense of dread only deepens with the next section. In it, Sassoon leads, ‘the place was rotten with dead,’ and goes on to describe the dead that is strewn all around them, thus almost foreshadowing the fate of the living soldiers. There is so many dead that Sassoon dedicates the rest of his first stanza to giving a sense of multitudes through description, ‘green clumsy legs,’ ‘trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,’ ‘naked sodden buttocks.’ Note the fragmentation of the human body: there is not one whole body, but it is made up of several pieces, lending that air of horror to this particular section of the poem.
A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,Staring across the morning blear with fog;He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;(…)He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,Sick for escape,—loathing the strangled horrorAnd butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.
The sense of peace returns as the ‘yawning soldier’ kneels against the bank, waiting for the Germans to attack. This is the final moment of peace that the soldiers get, and the imagery that it leaves us with is hinting: ‘staring across the morning blear with fog’ – nature is cloudy and miserable, hiding him from the fate that is about to befall him. His speculation about the Germans only adds to the sense of dread prevalent in the previous stanza.
‘And then, of course, they started with five-nines’ – five-nines were a type of bomb that whistled when they were flung. ‘traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud’ shows the horrible luck of the British soldier, and the phrase ‘sure as fate’ implies that there is no other end for the British soldier in the army. This is his fate: to be killed by the Germans in a war that was supposed to last only months but instead lasted years.
Helplessness swamps the soldier: he is ‘mute in the clamour of shells’ (further dehumanizing him, as he has no voice whereas the inanimate shells do), he is ‘dizzy with galloping fear, sick for escape,’ and he is the only one left alive by the end of the stanza. His ‘posturing giants’ – the other soldiers – have been taken down, but not only killed; they have been ‘dissolved,’ completely erased from the world.
An officer came blundering down the trench:“Stand-to and man the fire step!” On he went …Gasping and bawling, “Fire-step … counter-attack!”(…)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.
Officers and the higher classes were considered to be the peak of inefficiency in the British army, and quite a lot of satire was written about the officers and the generals. They did not have an idea of what they were doing and led soldiers on in battle. In this stanza, the phrase ‘blundered down the trench’ already foreshadows the tragic deaths of the soldiers – the officer is going to make them stand and fire, and they are not going to survive. The onslaught that was described in Stanza II is too great, too huge.
However, the soldiers stand to attention and are ready to fire.
The description fragments again after the first two lines. It states:
‘Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
“O Christ, they’re coming at us!”.’
Showing how outnumbered, outgunned, entirely helpless the British soldiers were. There are trapped in this hell of guns and shooting, and all too late, the soldier remembers his own gun, reaches for it – only to be shot and thrown sideways, and forgotten (‘Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out /To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked’). Ultimately, the soldier dies confused and terrified, ‘sank and drowned, /bleeding to death’), and we see the transience of his life – in the end, nobody mourns for him. The poem ends with an orderly ‘The counter-attack had failed,’ once more at odds with its description of horrors.
Siegfried Sassoon had an infectious sense of character, as evidenced in the letter that he sent to his uncle, detailed here:
My dear Uncle,
I was very nearly your (late) nephew, as the sniper only just missed failed to makeing a good job of it, & the bullet missed my jugular by a fraction of an inch, & the spinal column by not too much. But, as I wrote in the Head Sister’s album, (by request),
“Good luck to the hun
Who got out his gun
And dealt me a wound so auspicious;
May a flesh-hole like mine
Send him home from the Line,
And his Nurses be just as delicious”