- Sassoon's importance
- Early experiences
- 'War on war'
- Hospital and afterwards
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5. Hospital and afterwards
In Craiglockhart War Hospital, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen for the first time, and encouraged him in writing his poetry against war. He also made friends with the perceptive and wise psychologist and neurophysiologist W H R Rivers (during the war a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps). Rivers knew that Siegfried wasn't shell-shocked but put no pressure on him to change his mind. Otherwise he found himself feeling very out of place. 'I hadn't broken down, I'd only broken out.'
Now he began to feel that it was wrong for him to be in safe seclusion while his fellow-soldiers were enduring the horrors of the war. There was no way of foreseeing when the war would stop. Why should he, rather than the men he had been standing up for, be protected from the risk of being killed?
There was something else troubling Sassoon as well. He didn't want his resistance to war to be thought of as the belief of a man not in his right mind. Returning to the front seemed to be the only way to avoid that. He was boxed in. (A similar dilemma is a famous feature of Joseph Heller's Second World War novel 'Catch-22'. Bomber pilots could only escape from their death-flights if they were listed as insane. Wanting to escape flying wasn't insane, so orders to fly continued. )
So Sassoon was passed fit and went back to the front in February 1918 - 'and again,' he wrote, 'became part of the war machine which needed so much flesh and blood to keep it working'.
But he didn't stop writing and publishing poems against the war. One of them, called 'I stood with the dead', was printed in a left-wing magazine in July 1918. The last verse describes the poet standing among the corpses on the battlefield, bitterly lamenting that soldiers were paid to stand in line to kill and die.
I stood with the dead...They were dead, they were dead.
My heart and my head beat a march of dismay
And gusts of the wind came dulled by the guns.
'Fall in!' I shouted, 'Fall in for your pay!'
An army chief who happened to read this poem wrote angrily to the editor of the magazine: 'If Lieutenant Sassoon is now writing verse like this, his mind is still in chaos and he is not fit to be trusted with men's lives'.... He wanted to be told when the poem had been received by the editor. Had it been written while Sassoon was in hospital, and officially 'mentally disturbed', or later, when he might be liable for court martial? Not surprisingly, the editor said he didn't know.
It was also in July 1918 that Siegfried Sassoon incautiously raised his head above an embankment, without his tin hat, and was shot - by one of his own men (who was devastated when he realised what he'd done). This time the wounded Sassoon went back to England for good.
He recovered from the gunshot wound, but the war's mental damage lasted. 'How could I begin my life all over again when I had no conviction about anything except that the war was a dirty trick which had been played on me and my generation?' Nightmares and memories plagued him, and a restless sense of futility was hard to shake off. He also suffered, as so many survivors of war suffer, from difficulty in personal relationships; he was often deeply lonely.
SUICIDE IN THE TRENCHES
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.