Siegfried Sassoon’s Great Refusal

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (1886-1967), poet and novelist, platinum print, wearing military uniform with the collar badges of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and hat. (Photo by George Charles Beresford, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, poet and novelist, 1886-1967. (Photo by George Charles Beresford, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On July 28, 1917, the left-wing British newspaper Workers’ Dreadnought (founded as Woman’s Dreadnought by the suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst) published an Open Letter from an unlikely source: the highly-decorated, reputedly-fearless Infantry Officer Siegfried ‘Mad Jack’ Sassoon.

Recuperating from a throat wound, and nursing secret doubts about the nearly three-year-old World War, Sassoon had read Bertrand Russell’s collection of pacifist essays Justice in Wartime, and after meeting with Russell, decided, at the probable cost of his liberty, to speak out. That such an establishment insider – his cousin, Sir Philip Sassoon, was private secretary to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of British forces on the Western Front – chose Pankhurst’s despised and derided ‘red rag’ to break the news is extraordinary, itself part of the shock he hoped to cause. And by the time the statement – “an act of willful defiance of military authority” – was read in the House of Commons on July 30, it had already caused a sensation.

“I believe,” Sassoon declared, “that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest,” a slaughter “being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” For over two years, he had “seen and endured the sufferings of the troops,” but in such a situation he could “no longer be a party to prolong those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.” In addition, he hoped by his protest to help “destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.”


Not responsible

Bertrand Russell, oil painting by Roger Fry, 1923. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Bertrand Russell, oil painting by Roger Fry, 1923. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The statement now reads, and was widely received, as a masterpiece of controlled indignation. As Sassoon braced himself to send it, though, as he recalls in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), “it certainly sounds a bit pompous, I thought, and God only knows what the Colonel will think of it.” After “a most miserable morning’s work” of hesitant editing:

I walked down the hill to the pillar-box and posted my letters with a feeling of stupefied finality. I then realized that I had a headache…Lying on my bed with the window curtains drawn, I compared the prospect of being in a prison cell with the prosy serenity of this buzzing summer afternoon.

Though the police raided the offices of Workers’ Dreadnought, somewhat pointlessly confiscating 100 copies of the letter, the government decided not to prosecute Sassoon and so give him (and Russell) the chance to put the War itself on trial. Instead, it was quietly announced that “no disciplinary action has been taken, since Second Lieutenant Sassoon has been reported by the medical board as not being responsible for his action, as he was suffering from nervous breakdown.” Sassoon, awaiting arrest in a hotel in Liverpool, threw his Military Cross in the Mersey and proceeded to Craiglockhart Mental Hospital in Scotland, specializing in the treatment of shell-shocked officers.


War is hell

While his experiences at Craiglockhart not only failed to ‘cure’ but acted to confirm his pacifism, they paradoxically drove him back to the trenches, in part to be “with those who are suffering,” in part as a desperate final protest, an attempt, in his words, “to get my own back by being killed.”

In the summer of 1918, his wish nearly came true – “Ideas were a thing of the past now. While the blood poured from my head, I was intensely aware of everything around me…” – and his career as an antiwar warrior ended. For the rest of his long life (1886-1967) he remained true to the vow made to his friend Robert Nichols in 1917: “Let no one ever from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said, for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”

Craiglockhart War Hospital (old Hydropathic Hotel) photographs of Staff and patients taken on the 26th March 1917 by J.C. Bambuck Hanover Street Edinburgh. Attempts have been made to contact the photographer but to no avail. The original prints are held as part of the war poets collection This Photograph was gifted by Joyce Macpherson daughter of Nurse Grace Barnet whose photograph was gifted at the same time. Mrs Macpherson is generally contacted when the photographs are being used as a matter of courtesy. Her contact details will be posted below. Dr Rivers is in the photograph and is sitting front row 6th from left (with moustache) These details were posted 13th April 2005 information supplied by Catherine Walker Campus Library Manager, Craighouse Library

Craiglockhart War Hospital (old Hydropathic Hotel). Photographs of staff and patients taken on the 26th March 1917. (War Poets Collection, Craighouse Library, Napier University, Edinburgh)


Defending poetry

In his Open Letter, Sassoon described himself as “a soldier…acting on behalf of soldiers.” But he was also a poet, acting in defense of poetry – “sufficient imagination” – in a time of deliberate, orchestrated dehumanization.

Portrait of Wilfred Owen, found in a collection of his poems from 1920. (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Wilfred Owen (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In his 1918 front-line diary, he wrote sardonically that “one cannot be a useful officer and a reader of imaginative literature at the same time,” adding: “I have never been healthier in body than I am now. But under that mask of physical fitness the mind struggles and rebels, being denied its rights. The mechanical stupidity of infantry soldiering is the antithesis of intelligent thinking.” “

Sensitive and gifted people of all nations,” he added, “are enduring some such mental starvation in order to safeguard – whatever it is they are told that they are safeguarding…” By the light of the dug-out candle, poetry can appear either superfluous or miraculous, a futile gesture or an act of resistance. For Sassoon, it was both a “glimpse of heaven” in hell – a way back to being human – and “the darkness where…my soul rebels.”

At Craiglockhart, Sassoon befriended and mentored Wilfred Owen, the shell-shocked novice poet who would lose his life in battle a week before the Armistice. In one of his most famous poems, “Strange Meeting,” Owen evoked “the pity of war, the pity war distilled.”

Sassoon’s poetry, more often, was a distillation of anger, a sustained satirical ‘Counter-Attack,’ as his incendiary 1918 collection was titled, against the atrocities and idiocies around him. A classic example, parodying the sermonizing separation of soldiers into ‘us’ (good) and ‘them’ (evil), is “They.”


The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back

They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought

In a just cause: they lead the last attack

On Anti-Christ; their comrade’s blood has bought

New right to breed an honourable race.

They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.

“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.

“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;

Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;

And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find

A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”

And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”


Sepia lines

Portrait photo of John Alexander McCrae. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait photo of John Alexander McCrae. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Every Remembrance Day in Canada, alas, the Bishop’s clichéd cant is formulaically repeated – and the radical New Wave of Great War poetry collapsed into the single, stale offering of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” a distillation, as Paul Fussell wrote in The Great War and Modern Memory, of “recruiting-poster rhetoric apparently applicable to any war.”

With the famous order “Take up our quarrel with the foe:/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high,” we “finally see,” Fussell adds, what the piece “really” is: “a propaganda argument – words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far – against a negotiated peace.” McCrae, as Ian McKay and Jamie Swift write, was as far from Owen or Sassoon as can be imagined, a “patriotic imperialist who ‘ached for war,’” and who, after supporting the conscription platform of Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden in the 1917 General Election, declared: “I hope I stabbed a French Canadian with my vote.”

Britain’s McCrae was Rupert Brooke, adored by warmongers like Winston Churchill for sepia lines like “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” Unlike McCrae, though, Brooke died so soon in the conflict it’s impossible to know if his soul, too, may have rebelled; Sassoon’s early war poems – “And they are fortunate, who fight/For gleaming landscapes…” – were equally saccharine.


Dulce et Decorum Est

Portrait of British soldier poet Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915). Photo dated to 1914 or 1915 as subject is in uniform and enlisted in 1914 and was killed in 1915. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Hamilton Sorley, 1895-1915. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After Counter-Attack appeared, British ‘Tommies’ on leave were heard to chant, “Went to war with Rupert Brooke, came back with Siegfried Sassoon.”

The book, Nichols recalled:

[E]njoyed a remarkable success with the soldiers fighting in France. One met it everywhere. ‘Hello, you know Siegfried Sassoon then, do you? Well, tell him from me that the more he lays it on thick…the better. We’re fed up with the old men’s death-or-glory stunt.’

Instead of the obligatory, Maple syrup-serving of McCrae every Armistice Day, why can’t we sometimes ‘lay it on thick’ with Sassoon, or denounce with Owen “the old lie” Dulce Et Decorum Est (‘It is Sweet and Honorable to Die for One’s Country’), trotted out for “children ardent for some desperate glory?” Why not break the minute’s silence with the extraordinary sonnet found in the kit-bag of Charles Sorley, killed-in action (aged 20) in 1915, begging us to “say not soft things” when “millions of the mouthless dead” across our “dreams in pale battalions go?”

Is it because, in Canada anyway, we’re still living a dream of the First World War, clinging to the fantasy of ‘us’ against ‘them’?

If so, we’re not ‘torch-bearers’: we’re sleepwalkers.


Featured image: Portrait of Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.





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