Siegfried Sassoon Short Biography by Anna Fletcher
Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC
Born: 8 September 1886 in Kent, UK
Died: 1 September 1967, buried in Somerset, UK
Occupation: English poet, writer, British Army Officer
Son of Jewish father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon and Anglo-Catholic mother, Theresa Thornycroft
Named after his mother’s love of Wagner’s operas, Siegfried Sassoon was the middle child of three, from parents of two cultures. His parents separated when he was four years old, followed a few years later by the death of his father from Tuberculosis in 1895.
Sassoon attended schools in Kent and Wilshire before going to Clare College, Cambridge. From 1905-07, he studied law, then history, but left without completing his degree.
From an early age, Sassoon developed a love of poetry and spent his post-college years living off a private income which enabled him to pursue his enjoyment of writing verse, as well as his other hobbies; fox-hunting, cricket, and golf.
Although Sassoon’s early work was printed from 1906, his first published success came a few years later in 1913 with The Daffodil Murderer.
A year later, in 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. A patriotic and enthusiastic Sassoon eagerly enlisted to serve his country. His duty was postponed following a horse-riding accident in which he broke his arm. Once recovered, he was commissioned to the Third Battalion.
Sassoon was disenchanted with his role as transport officer and chose to be part of the action on the front line. In May 1915, he joined the First Battalion in the trenches of the Western Front, where he met Robert Graves, a fellow poet and life-long friend.
However, his initial enthusiasm quickly changed to disillusionment as he struggled to comprehend the atrocities of war. He had already lost his younger brother and a close friend, both killed in action. His feelings were becoming evident in his poetry writing; what had previously been considered as a romantic, even glorifying tone, was increasingly brutal and opposing of the war.
His disillusion was accompanied by extreme acts of bravery, considered almost as suicidal at times. This manic courage earned him the nickname “Mad Jack” to his men. In 1916, Sassoon was awarded the Military Cross for bringing in wounded and dead soldiers while under prolonged and consistent heavy fire.
Later, he was recommended for the Victoria Cross for single-handedly capturing a German trench in the Hindenburg Line, only rather than a signal for reinforcements, he sat alone and read from a poetry book in that trench.
In April 1917, Sassoon was wounded and sent back to England. While recovering, he spent time with Robert Graves, also wounded, and with other pacificists who strongly supported his anti-war outlook.
Using his rank to make a powerful impact for the anti-war movement, Sassoon published a statement Finished With The War: A Soldier’s Declaration in which he accused the government of deliberately and unnecessarily prolonging the war. The statement was published in The Times newspaper and read out in Parliament, causing a public outcry. Sassoon was prepared to face the impending punishment at court-martial.
Graves, however, did not wish to see his brother-in-arms end up in prison and convinced the British Army that Sassoon was not of sound mind; that he was suffering from shell-shock, and that a medical board would be a better-suited consequence than a disciplinary hearing.
The Army agreed to take this course of action. It is reported that Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the River Mersey prior to the hearing.
The medical board announced Sassoon as not fit for service and sent him to Craiglockhart Hospital, a specialist hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, for soldiers suffering from shell-shock and other war wounds. Here, Sassoon met another great war poet, Wilfred Owen and they read and wrote poetry together during their recovery.
Sassoon’s first war poetry collection The Old Huntsman was published in 1917, which reflects his changing tone from patriotism and enthusiasm to brutality and disillusionment of the war.
However, while he was at Craiglockhart, Sassoon is said to have experienced heavy guilt at having left his men on the front line and so, once fit enough for service, he chose to return to the action in the trenches.
Sassoon continued to struggle with the war horrors and his behavior became more extreme. In July 1918, he was shot in the head when he intentionally raised his head above the parapet, exposing himself to German snipers. He was again sent back to England to recover, where he was to stay for the remainder of the war.
His second collection of war poems Counter Attack was published in 1918; full of angry and satirical poems protesting against the continuation of the war, much of which was penned from his hospital bed.
In 1919, Sassoon resigned from the Army. He spent a brief period at The Daily Herald as Literature Editor before traveling to the USA on a speaking tour, lecturing on pacifism.
Sassoon continued to write poetry and in 1928, published an autobiographical novel Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, based on a character named George Sherston, whose story was very close to Sassoon’s own. The book was an immediate success and in 1930, Sassoon published the sequel, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.
1936 saw the publication of the final part of the Sherston trilogy with Sherston’s Progress. During this time, Sassoon was instrumental in publishing the war poems of his late friend, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action shortly before Armistice in 1918.
In his personal life, Sassoon had a great number of homosexual affairs but married Hester Gatty in 1933. This marriage came as a surprise to many but Sassoon wanted a family of his own. The couple settled in Wiltshire and in 1936 they had a child named George.
Like many World War I soldiers, Sassoon continued to be haunted by the effects of war long after Armistice. Following the success of the Sherston trilogy, Sassoon penned his own autobiographical trilogy; The Old Century (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942), and Siegfried’s Journey (1945).
Sassoon and Hester’s marriage broke down after World War II and Sassoon found himself increasingly in favour of solitude, where he continued to write poetry, prose, and biographies.
In 1951, Sassoon was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
He added religion to his love of solitude which influenced his later poetry. Sequences was published in 1956, a title praised by some critics as “some of the most impressive religious poetry of this century” (Poetry Foundation).
A year later, Sassoon was received into the Catholic Church.
In 1965, Sassoon received an honorary DLitt (Doctor of Letters) at Oxford University.
Ten years later, in 1967, Sassoon died from stomach cancer aged 80 and is buried at St Andrew’s Church, Mells, Somerset.
Over his life, Sassoon published nine books of prose and over 25 books of poetry. Sassoon is best remembered for his angry and compassionate poems of World War I which brought him critical acclaim. It is said that World War I both made and unmade him.
On 11 November 1985, sixty-seven years after Armistice, Sassoon was commemorated at Westminster Abbey as one of sixteen Great War Poets, alongside his friends Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen.
Siegfried Sassoon Quotes
“The fact is that five years ago I was, as near as possible, a different person to what I am tonight. I, as I am now, didn’t exist at all. Will the same thing happen in the next five years? I hope so”.
“I didn’t want to die – not before I’d finished reading The Return of the Native anyhow”.
“The dead…are more real than the living because they are complete”.
“And my last words shall be these – that it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us”.
First World War In Focus available online at www.1nam.ac.uk
© Anna Fletcher & SoflayiNC