This time of year, I like to re-post the series The War Poets. Just some of the men and women who served on the front line on all sides of the conflict who fought, died or returned scarred by their experiences.
They are going out at 4.a.m each morning my time, which is the coldest before the dawn, and as they would have woken in the trenches to prepare for another day of horror, bravery and sacrifice.
Considered one of the leading poets of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon led what was considered to be an unconventional life in some respects but there is no uncertainty about his stance on war and the inglorious nature of conflict on and off the battlefied.
Image by George Charles Beresford.
Siegfried Sassoon came from a privileged background and spent the years before the war enjoying a rather idyllic lifestyle as part of the country set. He had the luxury of time and when not fox hunting he indulged in his other passion which was poetry. He self-published several collections from 1906 which did not really ignite the passions of the critics but all this came to an end with the outbreak of war.
Siegfried became an angry young man and refused to lace his poetry with the glory and honour that some of his contemporaries attempted to do. He signed up for the Royal Welch Fusiliers and saw action in France. In 1915 he was awarded the Military Cross for rescuing a fellow soldier under heavy fire but this did nothing to dampen his contempt for his superior officers and his poetry was honest and brutal.
He was wounded in action and he wrote a stinging letter to the war department refusing to fight anymore. Bertrand Russell persuaded parliament that the letter should be read out in the House of Commons and Siegfried waited to be arrested and court-martialled. Luckily another friend, Robert Graves intervened and persuaded the army that Siegfried was suffering from shell-shock. Rather than the expected prison he was hospitalised in 1917.
After the war Siegfried Sassoon published an amazing work consisting of 64 poems titled The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. Not all who read his work appreciated his sentiments and he was labelled anti-patriotic and others were shocked by his realistic portrayal of life in the trenches. However, by this time many of those who had returned had also shared their stories and the British public bought his book in recognition of the truth of his words.
After the war Siegfried Sassoon continued to support his belief that the war would have ended sooner if not for the incompetence of the politicians and the generals. He did not just write about his opinions but also took action by becoming involved in the Labour Party and lecturing on pacifism. His most renowned work of the period was a trilogy of autobiographical novels The Memoirs of George Sherston.
I have chosen a poem that I feel epitomises Siegfried Sassoon’s stark view of life and death in the trenches.
The Working Party.
Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.
Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.
A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.
Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.
He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.
That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.
He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.
Buy Siegfried Sassoon’s work : http://www.amazon.com/Siegfried-Sassoon/e/B001HD05RC
To find out more about this extraordinary man and writer here are some links.
Thank you for dropping by and look forward to your feedback. Sally