Novelist H.G. Wells is famous for writing ‘this is the war to end all wars’, a phrase that has often been misappropriated to Woodrow Wilson; he wrote it with specific reference to the First World War, arguing that a defeat of Germany and the Central Powers was not only warranted, but necessary for the good of all of Europe. This phrase became so immortalized in popular culture that it is quite common to find books titled ‘the war to end all wars’ about the Great War. However, H.G. Wells was incorrect. The Great War was not the war to end all wars; it was, instead, such a traumatic event that the after-effects of it are felt still to this day, and at the time it was considered such a grotesque horror that very few people wanted to retain the memory of the war. In fact, Great Britain tried, as much as it could, to avoid a repeat of the First World War – an attempt thwarted by the Second World War, and Hitler’s declaration of war on Great Britain in 1939.
Without the birds I dare not think how I should have gone through the War at all. One friend, after reading my manuscript, asked if I could not include ‘more horrors’, even at the expense of some of the birds, but I told him that in any case I could remember not more ‘horrors’, though of birds I remembered so much. The mangled corpse is forgotten, but the warbler with the nest and eggs is remembered. I think the reason for this is largely that, at the time, the ‘horrors’ were so beastly, so ugly, that one got into the habit of putting them aside by concentrating on the birds, so that now, after many years, the memory retains the birds and to large extent has got rid of the rest.
– Philip Gosse, ‘A Naturalist Goes to War’.
At the time, however, the general view given to soldiers was that they were in the pursuit of God-given ideals; that they would return at Christmastime loaded down with medals and honorable memories; and that, if they died, they would die a soldier’s death. These, among all the other lies perpetuated by the propaganda machines in Great Britain, France, the United States, and Germany, were perhaps the most acutely felt. Poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, went to war with the idea of – if not outright glory – then the pursuit of easy ideals. However, this mentality lasted only until the first year of the war; after that, heaps of poems were written about how inglorious war actually was. Sassoon, himself a huge advocate of peacetime, was forcibly incarcerated for writing:
Lt. Siegfried Sassoon.
3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.
Then he was imprisoned in Craiglockhart in an attempt to discredit him, though it was an act that went sorely remiss. Today, he remains one of the most infamous poets to live throughout the tumultuous 20th century.
His poem ‘To Any Dead Officer’ is precisely concerning this: the gratuitous waste of life perpetuated and pushed forward by British authorities in their bid to fight a war that had been grossly overstated in terms of danger. It was a lament at the loss of life that they had achieved, seemingly in the pursuit of their ideals. Today, leading historians to find it difficult to spark exactly what set the war off, but the general consensus is that it definitely was not the high and mighty noble ideals that the British fed to their soldiers, but something altogether more human: a proxy war, fought due to mounting tensions and a heap of unhappy people who knew neither what they wanted, nor how to get it.
‘To Any Dead Officer’ was published in ‘The Cambridge Magazine’ on the 14th of July 1917, and was then reprinted by the same magazine in August 1917. A note explaining this is currently available for viewing in Texas as part of the Siegfried Sassoon Collection at the University of Texas, in Austin.
Siegfried Sassoon is known, perhaps, mostly for his sympathetic view – he is not a hard man, very similar to Wilfred Owen, but perhaps even gentler than he was (Sassoon was not above mocking those who he believed at fault for the war, but Owen’s vitriol was directed at everything and everybody, dragging into the limelight women, priests, and other soldiers). ‘To Any Dead Officer’ is one of Sassoon’s gentlest, most tender poems, and it talks about the titular dead officers with a sensitivity that readers of Owen would find quite at odds with Owen’s way of writing – Owen, who himself was an officer, believed that the upper levels of the military did more harm than good, especially given that half of them had bought their way into a military career, and very few had received proper training. Haig’s ridiculous tactics did not help the matter.
Therefore, in ‘To Any Dead Officer’, which can be read in full here, Sassoon is attempting to give the dead officers a semblance of life; rather than focusing specifically on their death (yet another of Owen’s topics was the futility and the horror of death), he focuses on their day-to-day lives in the trenches, on what he remembers of them. It is not, as Owen would have written, a grotesque, brutalized account of their death, but an almost-celebration of their life, and while Sassoon laments the early death of the soldiers, the majority of ‘To Any Dead Officer’ speaks about that they lived; that they were remembered; that they will never die, so long as the poem exists.
Analysis of To Any Dead Officer
There is something poetical and poignant about that opening line: ‘Well, how are things in Heaven?’ It immediately puts the reader in the position of the friend inquiring, and it is incredible how much emotion one can read in the opening line – by the reference to ‘how are things in Heaven?’ one gets the idea of closeness between the person asking, and the dead officer, and this sense of closeness and unspeakable pain only continues the further on the first stanza goes. In the second line, the man states, ‘I wish you’d say / Because I’d like to know that you’re all right’. He is so worried about his dead friend, and one can imagine that this is not the first time that he has spoken in such a way to the heavens, attempting to make some sense of the horrific loss that he has suffered.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day,
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?
Again, here is that sense of closeness; the almost-playful way that he asks his dead officer whether or not he is in heaven or hell, however, one should not mistake his closenessness for levity. Though he asks him in a brighter tone of voice, the way that he asks – ‘or been sucked in by everlasting night’ – is itself very dark, and very telling of the futility of the war. Once you are dead, all those beautiful promises that the country has made on your behalf have ended up dying with you. There is nothing glorious in death, and therefore, nothing to attain when one dies. The poetic ‘everlasting night’ does not preclude the horror of complete oblivion, which is what is being said here.
For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
One gets the sense that the man who died within close reach of his friend – that is, at least, what ‘To Any Dead Officer’ is driving at; at one point, the man says that he ‘shut my eyes’ and that he sees his face; that he still remembers him living, making ‘some cheery old remark’. There is also something horrific about the phrase ‘I can rebuild you in my brain’. Given the injuries suffered at battles like the Somme, where men who stepped in No Man’s Land were literally thrown into their air and scattered into pieces, one can imagine that this was perhaps some part of his death. That there is nothing left to bury but the memories of the man in mind.
‘Though you’ve gone patrolling in the dark’ is, again, a beautiful sentiment, but ultimately a very lonely sentiment. There is nothing in the dark, nothing to strive towards, nothing to protect; there is only the dark, and though Sassoon points this out (at least partially) as a compliment – look at the dutiful soldier, how he patrols even in his death – it is also directly blaming the war for his death. He has gone ‘patrolling in the dark’ – he has died while performing his duties as a soldier, thus becoming yet another victim of the war.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
Note, in the first half of the second stanza of ‘To Any Dead Officer’, how personable and approaching Sassoon is to the dead; Owen has a tendency to create a clear divide between those living and those killed, which Sassoon, here, does not do. He remembers the dead soldier as though he is still alive – and it is also worth noticing that there is a certain sense of powerlessness within the line itself. The soldier ‘hated tours of trenches; you were proud / Of nothing more than having good years to spend’ – note how innocent that pride was, note how his aspirations were ‘longed to get home and join the careless crowd / Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend’. There is so much innocence written about this soldier, this man that the reader has never met but is slowly getting to understand and to know through Sassoon’s description, and it underpins again the idea that war – no matter on which side and with what ideology – was, at its core, a fundamental warping of innocence.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
The way that Sassoon writes this bit of ‘To Any Dead Officer’ is of particular note: in the first half of this snippet of ‘To Any Dead Officer’, he points out the hopes and dreams of the soldier that he is speaking off, the titular dead officers that we do not know by name. In the second half of the same stanza, Sassoon brings those lofty aspirations down with a resounding thud, thwarting those dreams by mentioning that it is ‘all washed out now’, that the soldier is ‘beyond the wire’. One, in this stanza, can take ‘beyond the wire’ to symbolize a sort of faux religion – the religion of warfare, of dying soldiers in No Man’s Land, while also showing the end of the proper Christian religion (even Owen, a staunch Christian, was said to have lost his faith near the end of the war, particularly with regards to the treatment of soldiers by members of the clergy; the role of religion in World War One was limited to a sort of ‘God is on our side’ mentality, and the deliverance of the last rites to the soldiers that survived only to die hopelessly tormented).
Here in ‘To Any Dead Officer’, we also learn another piece of the story – the soldier that Sassoon is speaking so highly of was killed in a ‘hopeless dud-attack’ – a bombardment, whereupon certain explosives failed to detonate. It is actually quite well-known today for First World War ammunition to have survived the years, and detonate in the modern day (France is notorious for this). That said, this stanza reeks of hopeless disbelief; that the man he knew has died so ingloriously; that the man he knew has gone, is something that Sassoon is finding it difficult to understand. Perhaps the mentioning of ‘beyond the wire’ is yet another attempt to find meaning in a meaningless world.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
Because you were so desperate keen to live:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
Notice again in this section to ‘To Any Dead Officer’ the hopelessness that rears its head in the opening line of this stanza – ‘somehow I always thought you’d get done in’, and in the next line, Sassoon almost laments that he was so ‘desperate keen to live’. Near the second and third year of the war – once that glory and ‘dulce et decorum est’ had been beaten out of the enlisted soldiers – many simply went around trying to survive. The lies that they’d been sold no longer managed to lure the young and the idealistic into fighting; this, then, is when ‘To Any Dead Officer’ is set. The soldier has already seen the worst of what the war can offer, and was so keen to live that he ‘went all out to try and save his skin’. What else is there for a young man enlisted in war to do but to try and stay alive as long as possible?
Sassoon calls it a ‘dirty job’ – this is probably the angriest and the most critical that he gets in ‘To Any Dead Officer’. Notice, as well, the bit of conversation left there – ‘Jesus Christ! When will it stop? Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.’ This was quite a famous belief in the First World War: the Germans usually had superior positions to the approaching British Army, and superior defenses that they could hold for far longer than the British could attack; therefore many of Haig’s failed plans were to punch a hole through the German defense (their line) which led to horrifying battles like Passchendaele and the Somme.
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Moaning for water till they know
It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
In a complete twist of mood, Sassoon talks, then, about the soldier’s death – ‘To Any Dead Officer’ up until this point has been building up and up and up towards the idea of the righteous dead, and this is where most First World War poems focus, however, Sassoon gives it an alternate source of misery; the dead, once dead, cannot feel, however, the soldiers and the friends they left behind acutely feel their loss. Thus, Sassoon does not focus so much on the dead soldier’s emotions but on how he personally felt when he realized that his friend has been ‘left for dead’ – such callous cruelty is ensconced within that sentence, indirectly describing the same cruelty shown by the higher ranks and the men who pushed these people into fighting in a war that, as Sassoon himself had written, had gone far beyond the lofty ideals that they had imagined for it. Here is the reality of war: ‘lads’ (the use of the word ‘lads’ further shows how young most of these soldiers were’), ‘left in shell-holes dying slow’, not even allowed the quickness and the painlessness of a fast death, ‘with nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache’ until they eventually die, in agony and alone in the dark – the very same dark that Sassoon mentioned earlier on in ‘To Any Dead Officer’. Here is the cruelty of war; it takes young men and tears them apart, and leaves them to die all alone in a foreign country, even though the Roll of Honour – itself, in actuality, a list of names of the dead and the missing – tries to dress it up as properly as it can.
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
And tell Him that our politicians swear
Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.
Here, the poet’s emotions seem to fray – finally, the farewell that he has been building throughout ‘To Any Dead Officer’ is delivered to the dead man (‘Goodbye, old lad!’), and he asks him to ‘remember me to God’ – but Sassoon is not above criticizing further, here. There is a lot of pent-up frustration in the way that Sassoon says ‘tell Him our politicians swear / They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod’ – this, on the heels of such a sad death, comes as a sort of incredulous shock. How can they force more soldiers to fight to know that they are losing more and more of their soldiers to a war that has no noble purpose but to ‘thwart Prussian rule’, itself such a banal argument that it does not bear commenting on.
One can take the breaks in the latter sentences – the ellipses and the dashes – as a symbol of Sassoon’s overwhelming emotion. Here is a man bidding farewell to his dead officer, and he is overcome: note how he asks him, constantly, if he’s there, how he’s talking about the war as though the soldier himself is still going to fight in it; notice, again, the helplessness of the phrase ‘we’ve got stacks of men’ – it brings up such an image of senseless waste that it is impossible to read ‘To Any Dead Officer’ and not be angered by the loss in it, to read it and not imagine the hundreds of thousands of young soldiers that died as a result of bad commands, or something else along those lines. Notice how Sassoon puts it plainly, but heartrendingly – ‘I’m blind with tears, / Staring into the dark’, and then at the end, how he wishes for nothing more than that they’d ‘killed you in a decent show’. Far and beyond anything else about the war, it is the senseless, hideous way of dying that they find so grossly indecent; the ridiculous loss that the survivors found so difficult to understand. There was no honor in dying the way that these soldiers died, and that was what, beyond anything else, infuriated poets such as Sassoon and Owen and Graves; that, and the misunderstanding of war as a noble endeavor, led to the three of them writing their most prominent works and standing out as the critics of a war that most people took as a noble venture.
Fans of Sassoon have to look no further than the book ‘Regeneration’, by Pat Barker, a fictionalized account of his life that was later made into a film, and deals with a portion of his time spent in Craiglockhart, in particular his time spent with Doctor W.H.R. Rivers.