Song-Books of the War by Siegfried Sassoon

Revisionist history has attempted to put to rights some of the sins aired by the history books, memoires, and reviews of the British army during the 1920s to the 1960s. For the past forty years of publication history, interested historians, biographers, poets, and so on would publish their opinion of the misguided attempts of the British infantry to take prominent positions from the German military, and the blundering thereof of the British higher ranked that led them into the fracas. Among the maligned figures is General Haig, a former cavalry man in the army who believed that a full frontal assault on the German defences at the Somme would conclusively end the war. His idea was that one could attack the German offensive, chew away enough of the manned positions to allow for a charge, and then send the cavalry in to claim the position itself. This, as was proven, did not manage to come about; Haig, instead, laboured for a 142 days and lost a total of nearly 55,000 men on the first day alone.

That said, it’s no wonder that Siegfried Sassoon, poet to the poem Song-Books of the War, had such a hatred for Generals, Majors, and Haig in particular.

The so-called victories have been painted in glowing colours, for “dressing up ” the war loan. Morally, too, the offensive has not made the wished-for impression on the enemy, but if anything has put new courage into them. The pacifists in England and France are fewer and have retired into the background.

We hear universally that the pluck shown by the English was almost superhuman when they were taken
by surprise, and when through the failure of the Portuguese they were left to face such great odds alone. Even Ludendorff, hard stem man that he is, confessed that he would take off his hat to the English for their absolutely undaunted bravery. He said they never lose their heads, and never appear desperate ; they are always cool and courageous until the very moment of death and capture. I will put it exactly as I heard it straight from the Grosse Hauptquartier : ” The English Generals are wanting in strategy. We should have no chance if they possessed as much science as their officers and men had of courage and bravery. They are lions led by donkeys.” I wonder how much of this criticism is true. It is, of course, difficult for me to judge, but it is nevertheless interesting to hear, coming from such a quarter.

— Evelyn, Princess Blücher, and Englishwoman who was married to the fourth Prince Blücher and lived in Berlin during the time of World War I.

 

Song-Books of the War Summary

The poem, Song-Books of the War, which you can read in full here, takes place years after the First World War is over; its idea of revisionist history is that the terrible leadership has been forgotten, the casualties immortalized in stone and bronze, and the pain and anguish of serving has become a game. However, Sassoon details the truth in the voice of a man, then a grandfather, who speaks plainly about the truth of the war.

 

Song-Books of the War Analysis

Stanza 1

By half a century, people will have forgotten the war as anything more than a mildly interesting game for young ‘adventurous lads’ to play. Even though this is a poem written in the view of nostalgia and revisionism, there does not seem to be much emotion on Sassoon’s behalf, or rather, not much positive emotion. He writes ‘their hearts will kindle for the fight’, and about the ‘soldier-song/ savage and jaunty, fierce and strong;’, which itself is a very emotional phrase, and prompts a feeling of pride in the reader – however he ends the entire section with ‘of blind regret and haggard mirth’, and given that Sassoon is writing from the perspective of a soldier who fought in the war – who was fighting in the war – it dampens the poem’s enthusiasm. Knowing what the soldiers went through in the Somme, at Ypres, at Passchendaele, the reader cannot believe there would be people who glorify the loss that the soldiers suffered, who would want to play German soldiers and British soldiers in the trenches. As one historian aptly put it, to get the experience of the trenches, all one needed to do was fill a hole in the backyard with water, and sit there while someone chucked stones at you; this was the quintessential experience of the First World War.

 

Stanza 2

In the second part of Song-Books of the War, an old gentleman says:

War was a fiend who stopped our clocks

Although we met him grim and gay.

Notice the use of the word ‘fiend’ for war – a fiend is, historically, another word for an evil spirit or a demon, conjuring images of Faustian bargains; for their duty to the country, the men paid the price for it with their own blood and their lives, and the idea of ‘stopped our clocks’ shows the fact that time has been suspended. It has not been naturally ended, but shortly and abruptly ‘stopped’ – the word itself puts an image in one’s mind of a sudden change. Notice, as well, the phrase, ‘although we met him grim and gay’, showing the mindset of the British during the first year of the war. Nobody believed that it would last much longer than Christmas. Everyone thought they would be at home to celebrate the ringing of the new year.

It was not the case. For four years, the war dragged on, swallowing British soldiers alive as they attempted to defend their country, and to defend France. Germans soldiers were in much the same way; they believed that they would be back home soon.

In the second stanza, the man talks about ‘Haig’s last drive’, and he marvels that there were soldiers who had survived it. Remember that Haig was the strategic mastermind behind Ypres and the Somme, two of the bloodiest battles in the First World War, and his reputation as a buffoon, although not solely resting upon these two battles, was largely buffed upwards by the events of the Somme and Ypres.

The blunt force shown in ‘out of the shambles that men built / and smashed, to cleanse the world of guilt’ shows Haig’s brutal tactics, the casual lack of regard for life, the losses.

However, the boys do not believe him. Merrily, the poem returns to the brighter future – and the boys laugh and shrug off his concerns and his memories and the truth with ‘Poor grandad’s day is done’. The age of the sacrifice that the soldiers have made is over. Now there is only glory, to be handed out to the survivors, whatever tattered remains there were.

Song-Books of the War ends on a sombre, soft note – the boys ‘dream of lads who fought in France / and lived in time to share the fun’, thereby showing, again, the senseless cruelty of war, implying that the same boys who would’ve played in this war-free world died in the battles of the First World War.

 

Historical Background

Counter-Attack and Other Poems‘ was first published in 1918.

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