Lately I have been giving Siegfried Sassoon a pretty hard time. He’s in a difficult and very unusual position, after all. But of course he is a grown man and responsible for the mess he has gotten himself into… well, except for the whole problem of that mess, in the larger sense, being a miserable, mired, horribly destructive war directed by those who are, at a minimum, insensitive to the sufferings of the troops…
His protest was brave, idealistic, and foredoomed–which makes it sound quite a bit like volunteering for the war in the first place. Now, Sassoon’s complaints–not to mention the many fruits of his privilege–can be hard to take. After refusing to fight he was not jailed, or shot, or dishonored in any way, but rather shunted aside through the ministrations and misrepresentations of friends, some of them quite influential.
So he doesn’t like where he is… but he was only stuck with an aggravating Theosophist roommate because he is occupying a bed in a overcrowded hospital intended for those suffering from shell-shock; he is only at that hospital because his friends pulled strings and got him to accept that it was the only course out of his predicament (which probably wasn’t true, but never mind); and he only got to that point because he decided (under severe stress of combat, wounds, and survivor’s guilt) to put his principles before his prior duties to country, Regiment, and platoon. It’s a difficult situation, but he is not a helpless victim–not so much as many others.
This he knows, but he now wants to change his decision without having to change his mind–officially, at least. Most soldiers don’t get to revolt, return unscathed, and insist on a rider pointing out that they didn’t really return after all.
And is it compounding or redeeming his initial naivete (“I, a lieutenant with an MC and a new volume of verse, will protest, and thereby halt this out-of-control war machine!”) that he now “agrees” to return only with an impossible condition? On some level he must recognize that a “guarantee” from the War Office–to send him back out to be killed rather than making him look like a hypocrite by keeping him safe–is nothing of the sort.
It’s not a question of victory–there was never any chance of that–or defeat. Sassoon still made his protest, after all, and neither the statement nor the poems can be unwritten or unpublished. And if he really is sent back to the front he will be able to erase any taint of possible malingering that might attach to him when he suffers in whatever Passchendaele comes next. But it’s still a thorny problem of self-expression.
So rather than speak for Sassoon–or point out what Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves think of him, what with their own tickets for overseas service either punched or in the offing, and their friend the protester playing golf–I should at least let Siegfried try to wriggle out of his own knots.
Today’s letter addresses much of all of this, as well as how he sees the future playing out. It is to Lady Ottoline Morrell, the charismatic aristocrat who served Sassoon as a sort of shadow minister Eddie Marsh–she was, on other words, Sassoon’s friend and fixer among the pacifist intellectuals who influenced his decision to protest.
So he has some explaining to do…
My dear Ottoline, Your letter reached me just as I was moving my belongings into the ‘garret’ which I have at length secured and am now free from theosophy and conversation, though somewhat chilly. As they say, the war situation looks more hopeless than ever, and the bolstering speeches only make it seem worse. I am afraid I cannot do anything ‘outrageous’. They would only say I had a relapse and put me in a padded room. I am at present faced with the prospect of remaining here for an indefinite period, and you can imagine how that affects me. Apparently
nothing that I can do will make them take me seriously (and of course it is the obvious course for them to adopt): I have told Rivers that I will not withdraw anything that I have said or written, and that my views are the same, but that I will go back to France if the War Office will give me a guarantee that they really will send me there. I haven’t the least idea what they will do. But I hope you and others will try to understand, what I mean by it.
With greater sympathy, then, than I have recently mustered for Sassoon’s plight, I still want to break in here to point out that Sassoon must know that a “guarantee” is another polite fiction–like accepting being sent to a shell shock hospital–that merely prevents him acknowledging the checkmate. Also, that if Rivers is back and Sassoon has finally gotten his own room (the unfortunate and hopefully bygone collegiate term “psycho single” comes tom mind), his most pressing worries about Craiglockhart’s “affecting” him are now removed… but back to Sassoon:
After all I made my protest on behalf of my fellow-fighters, and (if it is a question of being treated as an imbecile for the rest of the war) the fittest thing for me to do is to go back and share their ills. By passing me for General Service (which Rivers says is ‘the only thing they can do’) they admit that I never had any shell-shock, as it is quite out of the question for a man who has been three months in a nerve hospital to be sent back at once if he really had anything wrong. If the War Office refuse to promise to send me back I shall let the people here pass me for
General Service and then do a bolt to London—and see what course they adopt. Oh I wish I could talk to you about it. It’s so hard to say what one means. I have written to Lees-Smith telling him what is happening. You must see how futile it would be for me to let them keep me here in these intolerable surroundings.
Surely my poems in the Cambridge Magazine are enough to show that I’ve not altered my views!
Let me know what you think, and if you are angry with me–say so.
Yours ever S.S.
There is a poetic post-script to come–and it is powerful. Any one of these long-dead writers deserves the last word, whatever their venial sins of confusion and muddled motives, and Sassoon earns today’s more than most. But I do want to duck in here again in order to point out something that has not perhaps been clear enough: Sassoon is not a child, or a fool, but even as he has been receiving something like hero-worship from Owen (however tempered by Owen’s burgeoning confidence) he is susceptible to the same habit himself. Whoever sent Sassoon here was an evil genius: whatever Rivers thinks about sending Sassoon back to war (and whatever Rivers thinks of the war itself) what(ever) Rivers thinks is pretty much the only thing that matters, now, to Sassoon. (Read Pat Barker’s Regeneration, or Sherston’s Progress–two brilliant but none-too-dated books that track the relationship). There is no suspicion that Rivers might not be completely honest about the possible outcomes of the next Medical Board (despite the fact that Graves lied about the last one), and no willingness to face the primary weakness of his argument, namely the idea that to declare him healthy now means he always has been…
The next two sentences are strong, as strong as the poem which follows–and they are true. But of course they do not address desperate conflicts of different duties, or delicate questions of right and wrong among the living and breathing.
This poem will show you what I feel like. And it is the truth.
When I’m asleep, dreaming and drowsed and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Rumble and drone and bellow overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
‘Why are you here with all your watches ended?’
‘From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line.’
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think.of the Battalion in the mud.
‘When are you going back to them again?
‘Are they not still your brothers through our blood?'
References and Footnotes
- This poem will be retitled 'Sick Leave.' Diaries, 190-1. ↩