When we left off, Siegfried Sassoon had just proclaimed to the world that he would no longer fight in the Great War. This was done with the full knowledge of what awaited him: a court-martial, probably followed by imprisonment and (possibly) by death. He felt miserable at some points, buoyant at others, but was determined to see it through. His hope was that by making a scandal of it—martyring himself for the cause—he could change the course of government policy. Having a decorated officer declare the war “evil and unjust” ought to have an effect, right?
Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby) throws his MC in the Mersey in Regeneration (1997) (US title: Behind the Lines).
Credit: Artificial Eye Film Productions, Norstar Entertainment
The reaction of his friend Robert Graves, who was also convalescing in England at the time, was something along the lines of “WTF, SIEGFRIED. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Oh, to be sure, Graves agreed with the declaration. But he thought publishing those thoughts was a stupid, useless thing to do, and he had a realistic idea of how the War Office would react. He (and others) tried to make Sassoon see the light: the War Office knew that Sassoon wanted to martyr himself; court-martialling him would be giving him exactly the kind of platform he wanted, which was the last thing they wanted. (Indeed, the Army had shown nothing but politeness and restraint in dealing with the situation so far.) Sassoon refused to retract his statement, but was now painfully aware of the worry he was causing his friends; in a fit of anger and frustration, he threw the ribbon of his Military Cross into the River Mersey.
So, desperate to save his friend from himself, Robert Graves took matters into his own hands.
Pulling every string he could, Graves asked for Sassoon to be given a medical board (i.e. examined to see if he was fit for military service). He then had to convince Siegfried to attend it. Taking him for a walk on the beach, he argued his case, saying he knew for a fact that Sassoon would not get a court-martial or the publicity he wanted. The medical board was, he emphasized, the only way to get out of this situation safely and honorably. Sassoon made him swear—literally, hold up an imaginary Bible and swear—that he knew this to be true, and Graves did it. But Graves lied. He didn’t know for sure that they wouldn’t order a court-martial, but he was willing to do whatever was necessary to convince Siegfried to go.
The next day, Graves testified before the board himself, so anxious and upset on Sassoon’s behalf that he burst into tears at several points. He painted his friend as a hero suffering from neurasthenia (i.e. shellshock/PTSD) due to his courageous battlefield acts. Sassoon was then called in and examined. Finally, after much debate, he was told to report to “Rivers” at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. “He is suffering from a nervous breakdown,” the board’s report read, “and we do not consider him responsible for his actions.”
Dr. W.H.R. Rivers
The Soldier’s Declaration was now officially discredited.
Sassoon arrived at Craiglockhart on July 23, 1917 (Graves was supposed to escort him, but missed the train). The hospital specialized in the treatment of officers with war neuroses, and the “Rivers” he’d been sent to was Dr. William Rivers, a well-respected psychologist/psychiatrist. Although Sassoon hated Craiglockhart (“Dottyville”, as he called it) and spent most of his time writing, playing golf, and taking walks, he absolutely adored Rivers, describing him as his “father-confessor”. Everyone loved Rivers, actually—he was an intelligent and exceptionally compassionate person. His “sessions” with Sassoon mostly consisted of long conversations about Siegfried’s experiences/feelings/opinions on the war. In Sassoon’s words:
“Three evenings a week I went along to Rivers’ room to give my anti-war complex an airing. We talked a lot about European politicians and what they were saying….What the politicians said no longer matters as far as these memoirs of mine are concerned, though I would give a lot for a few gramophone records of my talks with Rivers. All that matters is my remembrance of the great and good man who gave me his friendship and guidance. I can visualize him, sitting at his table in the late summer twilight, with his spectacles pushed up on his forehead and his hands clasped in front of one knee; always communicating his integrity of mind; never revealing that he was weary as he must often have been after long days of exceptionally tiring work on those war neuroses which demanded such an exercise of sympathy and detachment combined.”
There was one other bright side to Dottyville, but it took several weeks to surface. The patients and staff at at Craiglockhart who read the newspapers had seen Sassoon’s declaration. One such patient was a young officer by the name of Wilfred Owen. A writer and poet himself, he became curious about Sassoon’s poetry and, upon ordering himself a copy of Siegfried’s book, The Old Huntsman, was utterly blown away. “Shakespeare reads vapid after these,” he wrote his mother.
Still, it was several weeks before Owen mustered the courage to timidly knock on Sassoon’s door. He found Siegfried perched on his bed and polishing some golf clubs. Stammering with shyness and fanboy awe (as well as due to his neurasthenia), Owen asked if Sassoon would be kind enough to autograph a few copies of The Old Huntsman. Siegfried was happy to oblige and the two of them proceeded to have a half-hour conversation, which ended with Sassoon advising Owen to “Sweat your guts out writing poetry!”.
And so began the friendship of the First World War’s two greatest poets.
The relationship wasn’t a balanced one, at least not at first. Owen was merely an “interesting little chap” to Sassoon after that first encounter, whereas Owen hero-worshipped practically everything about Sassoon (who was, after all, good-looking, 6.5 years older, 7.5 inches taller, a decorated officer, and a published poet). Siegfried also had the advantage of being one of those charismatic people who, although he sometimes gave the impression of aloofness (mostly due to being shy), turned out to be an intelligent, funny, thoughtful, endearingly self-centered person once you got him talking. It was a recurring theme throughout his life: there was something intensely beguiling about his manner, and he seemed to fascinate nearly everyone he met. Owen was certainly no exception.
Nevertheless, they started to meet regularly to talk shop, often with Sassoon reading his latest work to Owen, who thought it “superb beyond anything in his Book”. Sassoon agreed to look at some of Owen’s poetry as well—not terribly impressed at first, but increasingly interested as Owen accepted his critiques and improved. The younger man even gained enough confidence to make suggestions about Sassoon’s work (and was amazed when Sassoon accepted the notes—imagine, your favorite writer taking suggestions from you!). Owen began to experiment with writing about the war, sometimes in Sassoon’s style and sometimes in his own. And one day, he showed Sassoon a sonnet that began,
“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons…”
Owen’s manuscript for “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, with Sassoon’s edits on it. Note the original title and Sassoon’s suggestion to change it. Click to enlarge. (British Library, Manuscript Collections)
Sassoon was impressed. Really and honestly impressed, and as they worked to edit it, he even suggested that they might try to get it published. While that didn’t end up happening, it did make Sassoon start to take “little Wilfred” more seriously. And over time, Owen’s hero-worship also faded a bit as he found himself able to laugh affectionately at Siegfried’s flaws.
Wilfred Owen was discharged from Craiglockhart in October 1917. The night he left, the two friends dined together at a club, and Sassoon left before Owen did—but not before handing him an envelope and giving him stern instructions not to open it until he’d gone. When Owen opened it, he discovered a £10 note and the address of one of Sassoon’s literary friends/mentors in London, plus a note from Sassoon telling him to go have some fun. Overwhelmed, Owen tried to express his gratitude in a letter, realized he was completely overdoing it, and waited a few days before trying again to explain how much Sassoon’s friendship and mentorship meant to him:
“Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.
What’s that mathematically?
In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.
If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life – however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze.”
(Brief biographical interlude: if that reads like a love letter, that’s because it basically is one. Though there’s not a lot of concrete evidence (I’ll explain why shortly), based on the correspondence we have, it certainly seems like Owen was in love with Sassoon. (That can’t come as a total surprise based on what I’ve said so far, right?) Whether they had any kind of romantic/sexual relationship is up for debate depending on who you talk to, but whatever happened between them, it meant more to Owen than it did to Sassoon. That said, Siegfried was certainly very fond of Wilfred, and when…well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Keep reading and I promise we’ll get there.)
The Craiglockhart Hydropathic, as it looks today (now part of Napier University)
Owen might have escaped from Dottyville, but Sassoon had not. In the course of his sessions with Rivers at Craiglockhart, Sassoon had been forced to repeatedly confront one agonizing fact: no matter how much he hated the war, and no matter how much he wanted to stay true to his ideals, his men were still out on the front. Suffering. Dying. And from his safe little room in this safe little building on this safe little island, there was nothing he could do to save them. Reading the casualty lists in the papers was a daily torture. And he gradually realized he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t go back.
“…In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
‘When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?’”
So, he went back.
It took some work and several false starts. Like Robert Graves, Dr. Rivers had to pull some strings to get Sassoon a medical board—and then had to do it all over again when Sassoon missed the first one. And once he’d been declared fit, it took a while for him to actually get back to France—he ended up at a training camp in Ireland first, then deployed in Palestine. But by May of 1918 he was finally finally finally back among the horrors of the trenches and the beauty of the French countryside. The few familiar faces here were far outnumbered by the unfamiliar; death had not been kind to the battalion in Sassoon’s absence, and his remaining friends were glad to have him back. (Robert Graves, also still alive, was in England.)
But on July 13, 1918, while he was returning from no-man’s land after one of his usual daredevil patrols, Sassoon was mistaken for a German by one of his own men and shot in the head.
Yup, in the head.
Ne freak-out pas, as my high school French teacher would say. He didn’t die. He thought he was dying at first, as did the man who’d shot him (horrified once he discovered what he’d done)—but the bullet hadn’t penetrated his skull. Just a lot of bleeding, as scalp wounds do. At the casualty clearing station, Sassoon firmly told the doctors that he did not want or need to be sent home. It wasn’t his decision to make, though; he was shipped back to England.
Nor was recuperating in a London hospital Sassoon’s idea of a good time. He was annoyed at having his social visits restricted, miserable at being cooped up, and distraught over being separated from his men again. His friends worried frankly about his “hankering” after death. But in August, who should reappear but Wilfred Owen, who was now well on his way to being a full-fledged poet. The two spent the space of a single afternoon together shortly before Owen was due to return to France. Owen neglected to mention this fact; Siegfried had once said it would be good for Owen’s poetry if he went back but, at another point, had threatened to stab him in the leg if he did. In part, Owen felt that he had to go back so that at least one of them would be writing from the front lines. But only once he was in France did Owen actually tell Sassoon where he’d gone. The two men corresponded over the next two months, Sassoon sending his newest book, and Owen sending new poems he’d written—poems that made Siegfried finally realize “little Wilfred’s” incredible potential as a poet. And the tide of the war had turned. Germany was losing ground, unable to compete with the Allies’ new American resources. And then…
On November 4th, 1918, exactly one week before the Armistice, Lt. Wilfred Owen of the Manchester Regiment led his company in an attempt to cross the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors, under heavy fire, and was killed in action. He was 25 years old. The telegram notifying his parents was delivered on November 11th, 1918 as the bells were ringing to celebrate the end of the war.
Sassoon didn’t find out about Owen’s death until several months after the fact. According to one quote I’ve read (though can’t verify), he described it in later years as “an unhealed wound, & the ache of it has been with me ever since.” What we do know is that Sassoon went on to become the greatest advocate and supporter of Owen’s work, personally editing several books of Owen’s poetry. Indeed, it’s largely due to Sassoon that we know as much of Owen as we do. And remember how I said I would explain why we don’t know more? Wilfred Owen had left his mother instructions to burn a sack of letters and personal papers in the event of his death—and to the everlasting chagrin of biographers everywhere, she did as he asked. There are a good many things we shall never know about him as a result (but then again, such is the case with all biography).
Sassoon in 1920
If you want to find out what happened to Sassoon in the years after the war, you’ll have to turn to one of the excellent resources listed below, because here at the end of the war comes the end of my telling of his story. I will say that he went on to write a great deal of poetry, as well as his memoirs (both fictionalized and, later, more honestly autobiographical). His friendship with Robert Graves, rocky after Graves’s efforts to “save” him, deteriorated pretty completely in later years (more on this in my next post). He had several love affairs (most notably with Stephen Tennant). And although he was gay, he went on to marry a woman (Hester Gatty) because he wanted to be a father (and got his wish). And he lived to the ripe old age of 80, dying in 1967.
WHOOOEEEEEE! Mad props if you made it to the end of that thing! Had I known I’d get so wrapped up in telling this, I’d have restructured my blog series, but there wasn’t a good place to break up this chunk of the story, so thanks for sticking around. Keep your eyes peeled for the final blog post (not nearly this long, I promise you) on how I got to “meet” Sassoon, Graves, and others.
And finally—I know I skated over the poetry in these biographical sketches, but PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE do read it. It’s the reason these guys are famous, and it’s incredible stuff (although, obvious-but-fair-warning: it’s about war, and war is not pretty).
Here are a few of my favorites to get you started:
Repression of War Experience
The Glory of Women
Anthem for Doomed Youth
Dulce et Decorum Est
S I W (stands for ‘Self Inflicted Wounds’—trigger warning for suicide)
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
Missed part of the Ari and Siegfried Sassoon series? Here’s the rest:
Part I: Story of a Friend Crush
Part II: Mad Jack, Poet, Soldier, Non-Spy
Part III: you’re here!
Part IV: A Tale of Libraries and Letters
DISCLAIMER: I am not a historian—merely a nerd. I’ve read quite a lot about Sassoon, but I certainly don’t know everything, and this blog series is in no way an authoritative narrative. If you want to learn more from people who actually know what they’re talking about, here are some of the resources you should look at (this is the closest I’ll get to a Works Cited page):
Egremont, Max. Siegfried Sassoon: A Life. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005. Print.
Graves, Robert. Good-Bye to All That. New ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957. Print.
Sassoon, Siegfried. The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. 2nd ed. London: World Books, 1940. Print.
Stallworthy, Jon. Wilfred Owen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974. Print.