We’re caught between two timelines, today, and just when we begin to knot together the lives of three poets, their views on the ethics of creative response to the war, and several closely-connected questions of conscience, consciousness, and the varieties of mental health in the post-traumatic infantry officer.
We might go by Siegfried Sassoon‘s days of the week, as he sets them out in his memoir–in which case today is his third day in the more confined purgatory he brought upon himself when he refused to accept a medical exam.
On Tuesday my one-legged friend… handed me an official document which instructed me to proceed to Crewe next day for a Special Medical Board…
On Wednesday I… was learning by heart as many poems as possible, my idea being that they would be a help to me in prison, where, I imagined, no books would be allowed…
On Thursday… I received an encouraging letter from the M.P. who urged me to keep my spirits up and was hoping to raise the question of my statement in the House next week. Early in the afternoon the Colonel called to see me. He found me learning Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet. Nor what soft. . . ”
What soft was it, I wondered, re-opening the book. But here was the Colonel, apparently unincensed, shaking my hand, and sitting down opposite me, though already looking fussed and perplexed. He wasn’t a lively-minded man at the best of times, and he didn’t pretend to understand the motives which had actuated me. But with patient common-sense argument, he did his best to persuade me to stop wanting to stop the War. Fortified by the M.P.’s letter in my pocket, I managed to remain respectfully obdurate, while expressing my real regret for the trouble I was causing him. What appeared to worry him most was the fact that I’d cut the Medical Board.
‘Do you realize, Sherston, that it had been specially arranged for you and that an R.A.M.C. Colonel came all the way from London for it?’ he ejaculated ruefully, wiping the perspiration from his forehead.
The poor man — whose existence was dominated by documentary instructions from ‘higher quarters’, had probably been blamed for my non-appearance; and to disregard such an order was, to one with his habit of mind, like a reversal of the order of nature. As the interview dragged itself along, I began to feel quite optimistic about the progress I was making. The Colonel’s stuttering arguments in support of ‘crushing Prussian militarism’ were those of a middle-aged civilian; and as the overworked superintendent of a reinforcement manufactory, he had never had time to ask himself why North Welsh men were being shipped across to France to be gassed, machine-gunned, and high explosived by Germans. It was absolutely impossible, he asserted, for the War to end until it ended well, until it ended as it ought to end. Did I think it right that so many men should have been sacrificed for no purpose? ‘And surely it stands to reason, Sherston, that you must be wrong when you set your own opinion against the practically unanimous feeling of the whole British Empire.’
There was no answer I could make to that, so I remained silent and waited for the British Empire idea to blow over…
But there is another, more solid chronology, in which all of this would seem to have happened–despite Sassoon’s having assigned the days of the week to match today’s date–some four days ago.
In the passage quoted above, “George Sherston” goes on to wish he could speak with the influential anti-war philosopher “Tyrell.” This is Bertrand Russell; but in real life, Sassoon’s pacifist friends have been outflanked. Or, rather, Robert Graves has stolen a march for his friend’s military reputation and the honor of the Regiment. There is more than a bit of dumb show in this, I think: Sassoon was advised and coached by a number of influential older writers and activists in London. But where are they now? Their protégé has written his statement and it is set to be widely publicized after a question is asked about it in the House of Commons. But why is no one staying with their man? Knowing Sassoon, and then leaving him to face the military consequences of his action alone seems like poor tactics…
And so, when Graves arrived yesterday–a date supported by the timing of his departure from the Isle of Wight and day in London–he found Sassoon lonely (this is emphasized in both of their accounts) and vulnerable to persuasion. So by now, in this timeline, it’s a done deal: Sassoon has attended a second medical board (arranged within hours–more evidence that Graves’s persuasions are coordinated with an opaque but irresistible War Office decision to take the medical route) and been deemed to suffer from a “war neurosis”–shell-shock, in other words, or what will come to be called “combat fatigue,” and then, later, PTSD.
Graves emphasizes Sassoon’s debilitation at this time–he has been having waking nightmares and is physically worn down and exhausted. The implication is that, even though Sassoon really did hate the war, we might consider his statement to have been written in a moment of weakness. Yet Sassoon does not depict himself as ill, only distraught and intellectually confused about where his loyalties and ethical responsibilities should lie… but he gave in, nonetheless.
And, if this letter from Graves to Eddie Marsh is correctly dated, it was today, a century back:
19 July 1917
3rd RWF, Litherland, Liverpool
My Dear Eddie
It’s all right about Siegfried. After awful struggling with everybody (I arrived at 59 minutes past the eleventh hour) I’ve smoothed it all down and he’s going away cheerfully to a home at Edinboro’. I’ve written to the pacifists who were to support him telling them that the evidence as to his mental condition given at his Medical Board is quite enough to make them look damned silly if they go on with the game and ask questions in the House about his defiance…
The statement will still be read in the House–but now, crucially, the army will be able to imply (and its allies in the House explain) that the brave officer in question is, alas, not quite in his right mind, and resting comfortably in a hospital in Edinburgh…
So let’s skip ahead a bit in Sassoon’s own chronology, and read his fictionalized account of the crucial encounter. Stewing of a Sunday morning at the end of his lonely week, George Sherston is even considering going to church, despite his preference for poetry as a spiritual aid.
Sitting in a sacred edifice wouldn’t help me, I decided. And then I was taken completely by surprise; for there was David Cromlech, knobby-faced and gawky as ever, advancing across the room. His arrival brought instantaneous relief, which I expressed by exclaiming: ‘Thank God you’ve come!’
He sat down without saying anything. He too was pleased to see me, but retained that air of anxious concern with which his eyes had first encountered mine. As usual he looked as if he’d slept in his uniform. Something had snapped inside me and I felt rather silly and hysterical. ‘David, you’ve got an enormous black smudge on your forehead,’ I remarked. Obediently he moistened his handkerchief with his tongue and proceeded to rub the smudge off, tentatively following my instructions as to its whereabouts. During this operation his face was vacant and childish, suggesting an earlier time when his nurse had performed a similar service for him.
This is good writing, no? Sassoon’s quiet wit and his poetic gift for satire borrowed by the novelist/memoirist to rough in the character of his friend with a few heavy strokes about his appearance. But it’s not kind… Graves is not the only one who does not place consideration for the feelings of old friends uppermost in his mind when memoir-writing. In any case, the gawky child has the upper hand, and listens to “Sherston” explain himself.
…When I started this anti-war stunt I never dreamt it would be such a long job, getting myself run in for a court martial, I concluded, laughing with somewhat hollow gaiety.
In the meantime Dated sat moody and silent, his face twitching nervously and his fingers twiddling one of his tunic buttons. ‘Look here, George,’ he said, abruptly, scrutinizing the button as though he’d never seen such a thing before, ‘I’ve come to tell you that you’ve got to drop this anti-war business.’ This was a new idea, for I wasn’t yet beyond my sense of relief at seeing him, ‘But I can’t drop it,’ I exclaimed. ‘Don’t you realize that I’m a man with a message? I thought you’d come to see me through the court martial as “prisoner’s friend.”’ We then settled down to an earnest discussion about the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men were being sacrificed. He did most of the talking, while I disagreed defensively. But even if our conversation could be reported in full, I am afraid that the verdict of posterity would be against us. We agreed that the world had gone mad; but neither of us could see beyond his own experience, and we weren’t life-learned enough to share the patient selfless stoicism through which men of maturer age were acquiring anonymous glory…
And there I should cut Sassoon off, before we fall afoul of the rule prohibiting explicitly ex post facto judgments from our writers.. The two friends continue to debate the whys and wherefores of pacifism and protest, until the patience of Graves/Cromlech grows thin:
David then announced that he’d been doing a bit of wire-pulling on my behalf, and that I should soon find that my Pacifist M.P wouldn’t do me as much good as I expected. This put my back up. David had no right to come butting in about my private affairs. ’If you’ve really been trying to persuade the authorities not to do anything nasty to me, I remarked, ‘that’s about the hopefullest thing I’ve heard. Go on doing it and exercise your usual tact, and you’ll get me two years’ hard labour for certain, and with any luck they’ll decide to shoot me as a sort of deserter.’ He looked so aggrieved at this that I relented and suggested that we’d better have some lunch. But David was always an absent-minded eater, and on this occasion lie prodded disapprovingly at his food and then bolted it down as if it were medicine.
After lunch the debate resumes, and thus it comes to a head:
“…the main point is that by backing out of my statement I shall be betraying my real convictions and the people who are supporting me. Isn’t that worse cowardice than being thought cold-footed by officers who refuse to think about anything except the gentlemanly traditions of the Regiment? I’m not doing it for fun, am I? Can’t you understand that this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life? I’m not going to be talked out of it just when I’m forcing them to make a martyr of me!
‘They won’t make a martyr of you.’ he replied.
‘How do you know that?’ I asked. He said that the Colonel at Clitherland had told him to tell me that if I continued to refuse to be ‘medically boarded’ they would shut me up in a lunatic asylum for the rest of the War. Nothing would induce them to court martial me. It had all been arranged with some big bug at the War Office in the last day or two.
‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’ I asked.
‘I kept it as a last resort because I was afraid it might upset you.’ he replied, tracing a pattern on the sand with his stick.
‘I wouldn’t believe this from anyone but you. Will you swear on the Bible that you’re telling the truth?’
He swore on an imaginary Bible that nothing would induce them to court martial me and that I should be treated as insane. ‘All right then, I’ll give way.’ As soon as the words were out of my mouth I sat down on an old wooden break-water.
So that was the end of my grand gesture. I ought to have known that the blighters would do me down somehow, I thought, scowling heavily at the sea. It was appropriate that I should behave in a glumly dignified manner, but already I was aware that an enormous load had been lifted from my mind. In the train David was discreetly silent. He got out at Clitherland. ‘Then I’ll tell Orderly Room they can fix up a Board for you to-morrow.’ he remarked, unable to conceal his elation. ‘You can tell then anything you bloody well please!’ I answered ungratefully. But as soon as I was alone I sat back and closed my eyes with a sense of exquisite relief.
Sassoon himself wastes no time in unmasking the irony of this hostile-friendly intervention, so we’ll break our rules and step forward to look back on the truth of this moment:
I was unaware that David had probably saved me from being sent to prison by telling me a very successful lie. No doubt I should have done the same for him if our positions had been reversed.
On this, on several grounds, there should be a great deal of doubt.