By Kieron C. Punch
Siegfried Sassoon, 1916
On April 16, 1917, Siegfried Sassoon, an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and arguably Britain's greatest war poet, was wounded by a German sniper while leading his company in an attack at Fontaine-les-Croisilles. While recovering from his wounds in England, Sassoon's growing anger at the political mismanagement of the war compelled him to write a scathing attack, which achieved public notoriety after being read aloud in the House of Commons, "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."
Unwilling to risk the adverse publicity that would accompany the court martial of a man who had been decorated for undoubted acts of bravery, the under-secretary for war declared that Sassoon was suffering from shell shock and had him sent to a military psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh. It was during his incarceration at the hospital that Sassoon wrote "Survivors," a poem that displayed his contempt for the authorities who patched-up shattered men only to return them to combat. It also reveals much about the tortured state of his own mind:
No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're 'longing to go out again,' —
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died, —
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride ...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
Without changing his views, Sassoon finally accepted the futility of continuing his protest and persuaded the Review Board at Craiglockhart that he should be passed for General Service and returned to the "sausage machine" that was the Western Front.
|'By the time I had been at Limerick a week I had found something closely resembling peace of mind.'|
On December 26, 1917, Sassoon left Edinburgh for the Royal Welch Fusiliers' regimental depot at Litherland, near Liverpool. Upon arrival, however, he discovered that the 3rd Battalion had been sent to Limerick, Ireland, to replace an Irish battalion, and that he was to join them there in the New Year.
After a train journey to Holyhead, in north Wales, Sassoon sailed the Irish Sea to Dublin and arrived in Limerick on January 7, 1918. He was stationed in the "New Barracks" (now Sarsfield Barracks) and his first impressions of the city, as noted in his diary, appear quite favorable. He wrote: "Bells tolling from Limerick Cathedral; much nicer than sirens from Bryant and May's factory (in Litherland)."
Almost immediately, Sassoon began to fall under the hypnotic spell of the Irish countryside and forget the horrors he had witnessed in France, writing, "By the time I had been at Limerick a week I had found something closely resembling peace of mind."
On one occasion, he "... walked out to Adare this afternoon. At the end of the journey I suddenly came upon the wide, shallow, washing, hastening, grey river; the ivy-clad stones of a castle-ruin planted on the banks, amid trees. Very romantic scene, on a grey evening. ..."
With few duties to detain him at the barracks, Sassoon saw the opportunity to indulge in his favorite pre-war pastime of fox-hunting, and he began to make inquiries with the local hunts. During the following month Sassoon ranged far and wide across some of the finest horse riding country in Ireland, losing himself in the fields and hedgerows around Croom, Fedamore, Friarstown and Castle Hewson, and being wined and dined in the grand houses of the fox-hunting gentry. Sassoon even went Absent Without Leave from an anti-gas training course in Cork so that he could ride with the Muskerry Hounds, an event he describes thus in his diary: "Fine country — along the River Lee— a wide, rain-swollen, stream, flowing down long glens and reaches. The whole land-scape grey-green and sad and lonely. Ireland is indeed a haunted, ancient sort of land. It goes deep into one's heart."
|'The Irish were being troublesome — extremely troublesome ...'|
Yet despite the apparent tranquillity, the dark cloud of another approaching war cast its shadow over rural Ireland and threatened to wake Sassoon from his reverie. "It was difficult to believe that such a thing as 'trouble' existed in Ireland, or that our Majors were talking in apprehensive undertones about being sent out with mobile columns — the mere idea of our mellow Majors going out with mobile columns seemed slightly ludicrous. But there it was. The Irish were being troublesome — extremely troublesome — and no one knew much more than that, except that our mobile columns would probably make them worse." Later still, the threat became more personal when Sassoon and a fellow officer broke their journey in a village pub and the owner, a man named Finnegan, prophetically warned, "There'll be houses burnt and lives lost before the year's ended, and you officers ... had better be out of Ireland than in it, if you set value on your skins."
|A British recruiting poster aimed at the Irish.|
Siegfried Sassoon, however, was not destined to remain in Ireland long enough to experience the Irish "Troubles," as the Great War was once again calling Sassoon back. On his last morning in Ireland, February 8th, Sassoon rode with a hunt to Ballingarry and said farewell to the land he had grown to love and that had provided an escape from the nightmare of trench warfare, "I felt a bit mournful as my eyes took in the country with its distant villages and gleams of water, its green fields and white cottages, and the hazy transparent hills on the horizon — sometimes silver-grey and sometimes that deep azure which I'd seen nowhere but in Ireland."
It is possible that as Sassoon rode out that February morning he was accompanied by the famous hounds of Limerick's Scarteen Hunt, nicknamed "The Black and Tans" on account of their distinctive coloring. Only two years later, the world of the fox-hunting, Irish country squire that Sassoon experienced would be swept away in a war more fully brutalised by an undisciplined paramilitary police force nicknamed "The Black and Tans," on account of their distinctive uniforms. By then, however, Sassoon's military career was over — after being shot in the head in France by friendly fire, he was invalided home.
After the Great War, Sassoon's social conscience pushed him toward involvement with labour politics. He became literary editor for Britain's first socialist daily newspaper, the Daily Herald, and played an active role in the 1921 Miners' Strike and the 1926 General Strike. After the success of his "War Poems," Sassoon received critical acclaim for his slightly fictional autobiography "Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man," for which he was awarded the Hawthornden Prize in 1929.
Despite a succession of homosexual relationships, Sassoon married Hester Gatty in 1933 and fathered a son, George. By late 1944, however, the marriage had failed and Sassoon began to live a reclusive life at his Heytesbury House home in Wiltshire. Much of Sassoon's literary work continued to display a deep spirituality and search for inner peace; a search which was satisfied by his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1957. Sassoon died Sept. 1, 1967, at the age of 80. WGT
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Those wishing to read more about Sassoon's life can purchase Max Egremont's new book, "Siegfried Sassoon: A Biography." Those who are interested specifically in Sassoon's wartime career, and incarceration at Craiglockhart Hospital, could do no better than to purchase the film "Regeneration" (available in the United States with the title "Behind the Lines"), based upon Pat Barker's novel of the same name, and featuring Jonathan Pryce as Dr. Rivers and James Wilby as Sassoon.
Copyright © 2005 by GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions firstname.lastname@example.org.