Poets like Siegfried Sassoon bring home horror of war better than historians
Next Monday, the Irish President, Michael D Higgins, will join an official commemoration at Mons in Belgium to mark the start of the First World War, on August 4, 1914.
As a poet himself, I am sure Michael D will appreciate the profound understanding that the war poets brought to that terrible conflict.
Indeed, some historians claim that our sensibilities have been overly impressed by "the poets' war": we should look at the political and military causes of the Great War, and not the poets' lamentations.
I disagree. The poets who stamped their vision on the Great War truly demonstrated that "the pen is mightier than the sword". Their words and images bring us more vividly to understand the experience of that grim conflict than any history book, or any military account.
The Great War produced much great poetry. Brian Gardner's paperback anthology Up the Line to Death is a fine selection, which includes the work of two Irish poets, Francis Ledwidge, who died in 1917, and Patrick MacGill, who lived until 1963, but who passionately recorded his time on the Western Front. Yet if we were to choose just one poet who, more than any other, has shaped our perception of the Great War, I would say it has to be Siegfried Sassoon, whose poignant, ardent, often bitter, and sometimes lacerating verse is so unforgettable.
Sassoon probably wrote the greatest anti-war poem of all time – The General, which is just 68 words long:
"Good-morning; good-morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line,
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack.
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Originally, Sassoon had written "but he murdered them both", but that was censored by his publisher. Yet the amended version is all the stronger for being restrained. And those 68 words were probably more influential than all the millions of words analysing decisions made by the military chiefs.
Siegfried Sassoon was a brave and extraordinary man: his father was a cultured Jewish financier and sculptor, his mother was from an upper-class artistic English family. He led the life of a country gentleman – hunting, playing cricket, writing and collecting books – until he joined the Sussex yeomanry, aged 28, in 1914.
He won awards for his courage, but while convalescing from war wounds, he penned a ferocious attack on the conduct of the war, which he came to believe was cruelly prolonged, and atrociously wasteful of men's lives.
Sassoon's poetry told the bleak truth, though with humanity. The Hero is about a mother's pride that her son died with valour – whereas in truth, Jack's death was ghastly. Sassoon observes suicide in the trenches from terrible despair which the "smug-faced crowds ... who cheer when soldier lads march by" will never understand. "Men fought like brutes ... hideous things were done." He inveighs against the cheap "jokes in music-hall" and the way working-class lads were sent off to war by local bigwigs: "Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight/(Under Lord Derby's scheme). I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele) ... " The lad dies: Squire survives.
His most shocking poem was named Atrocities. It followed his discovery that German prisoners-of-war had been illicitly killed. "You told me, in your drunken-boasting mood/How once you butchered prisoners. That was good!/I'm sure you felt no pity while they stood/Patient and cowed and scared, as prisoners should." Last year, an even more angry version of that startling poem was discovered.
Sassoon had deep compassion for the ordinary squaddie, and what they suffered in the trenches – and dying slowly in shell-holes "moaning for water". His contempt for the brass hats landed him in an asylum in Scotland, where he was also joined by Wilfred Owen, another marvellous war poet, and author of Anthem for Doomed Youth.
Yet, although Sassoon objected to the war, he went back to the fray, because he was a brave officer who did his duty. His most elegiac poem, Everyone Sang at the war's end, has had lasting resonance: "Everyone suddenly burst out singing ... O, but Everyone/Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done" (from which Sebastian Faulks named his Great War novel Birdsong).
Siegfried Sassoon was a homosexual (as was Wilfred Owen) though he married Hester Gatty in the 1930s and they had a son. The marriage was eventually dissolved, and he became more of a recluse, living in the English countryside. Yet he found peace and comfort when he became a Catholic in 1957, and his last poems were spiritual and devotional.
Sassoon was a sensitive and sometimes troubled person, but perhaps he wouldn't have been such an inspiring poet if he hadn't been so open to suffering.
For some commentators, the retrospective of the 1914-18 war are political. Far more important, to me, is the story the poets have told us, and most especially Siegfried Sassoon.
Quotations from Siegfried Sassoon's work by permission. Mary is at the John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh this Thursday, 7.15pm. www.johnhewittsociety.org