Sassoon was a gallant officer, who won the Military Cross for courage and fought at several battles, yet he also detested the slaughter and the misconduct of the war by generals and politicians.
His protest took two forms: his celebrated statement against the war, which was published in the Times, and his deadly satirical war poems, which he called ‘ trench rockets sent up to illuminate the gloom ’. Churchill called them ‘ cries of pain wrung from soldiers during a test to destruction ’.
Sassoon came from a wealthy banking family. After studying at Cambridge, he was able to live without a profession and devoted himself to hunting, riding and cricket, and to poetry, which he published at his own expense.
When war came, he quickly volunteered and became an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His war diary recorded his experiences of the front:
“ If you search carefully, you may find a skull, eyeless, grotesquely matted with what was once hair; eyes once looked from these detestable holes… they were lit with triumph and beautiful with pity…”
30 March 1916
“ The dead are terrible and undignified carcasses, stiff and contorted… some side by side on their backs with bloody clotted fingers mingled as if they were hand-shaking in the companionship of death. And the stench undefinable. And rags and shreds of blood-stained cloth, bloody boots riddled and torn…”
14 July 1916
Sassoon was wounded and sent home. In a London hospital, he was haunted by hideous dreams about the war:
“ When the lights are out, and the ward is half shadow… then the horrors come creeping across the floor; the floor is littered with parcels of dead flesh and bones, faces glaring at the ceiling… hands clutching neck or belly…”
23 April 1917
Sassoon’s poems aimed to tell the truth about war. He particularly wanted to upset ‘blood-thirsty civilians and those who falsely glorified the war’. Memories from France and hints from newspapers would ‘ bring poems into my head as though from nowhere ’. He used a plain, direct style, bringing in soldier’s slang. A pattern of sharp lines often leads to a ‘knock-out blow’ in the last verse.
An early success was Died of Wounds , based on a dying soldier whom he saw in a hospital near the Somme in July 1916:
The Hero is a miniature short story in verse. A ‘brother officer’ on leave has called to see a bereaved ‘Mother’, whose son ‘Jack’ has been killed recently at the Front. The Mother consoles herself by thinking of her son as a hero; the officer knows that Jack was a coward who died miserably – but he does not tell her. Sassoon said that his satire was an antidote to the false ‘glorification of the “supreme sacrifice”’:
Sassoon resented those who directed the fighting but took no active part in it. On leave in Rouen, he observed a senior officer eating an expensive meal: ‘Why can’t you go and show the Germans how to fight instead of guzzling at the Base?’
This inspired Base Details , another satire, again built around two voices, the observer and the Major:
In The General , Sassoon made his classic Great War protest about incompetent military leadership. In only seven epigrammatic lines, he sums up the bitterness of the fighting troops about the costly, largely futile Battles of the Somme. The satire was inspired by his observations of the Corps Commander as the Royal Fusiliers marched past him on their way to Arras in 1917:
In Does It Matter?, a poem about civilians’ attitudes to badly wounded soldiers, Sassoon uses sarcasm to pretend to agree with the civilian speaker of each stanza. He knows that the reality of war wounds is more cruel, though, as it means a lifetime of suffering and people actually fear and dislike the wounded, and want to forget them quickly:
The misery of trench warfare caused men on both sides to kill themselves to escape the fear and stress. Such men died ingloriously by self-inflicted wounds (SIW). Sassoon chooses one such figure, in Suicide in the Trenches , whose individual story is more impressive than sheets of statistics. ‘ The soldier is no longer a noble figure ,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘ He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction .’