September 8, 1886– Siegfried Sassoon
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
106 years ago, the grueling era of World War I brought a harsh education about the devastation and futility of war to 300,000+ young British men, including those who grew up in privilege. One of these was the young gay ”war poet”, Siegfried Loraine Sassoon.
Brought up in the leisured life of a country gentleman, Sassoon enlisted in the military just as the war was beginning. His poetry reflects his change of attitudes towards war, from a vision of combat as reflecting glory and nobility, to finishing with muddy, bloody realism and bitter grievance against the people who profited from the destruction of young soldiers’ lives. Sassoon’s poems are filled with the ugly realities of the brutality and pointlessness of war. His later work retains a rather romantic affection for the average soldier, who does his duty with bravery, even when he does not understand why.
With savage irony, Sassoon condemns the corrupt old rich men of the government, military and business worlds, who made a profit from the war while sending young men off to die. From his poem Base Details:
If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die in bed
Shortly after the start of World War I, Sassoon served with the British Royal Army, seeing action in trenches of France in late 1915. He received a Military Cross for bringing back a wounded soldier under heavy fire. After being wounded in action, Sassoon wrote an open letter of protest to the British War Department, refusing to fight any more:
”I believe that this war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”
At the urging of British philosopher Bertrand Russell, that letter was read in the House Of Commons. Sassoon expected a court-martial for his protest, but famed English poet Robert Graves intervened on his behalf, arguing that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock and needed medical treatment. In 1917, Sassoon entered a sanatorium.
Always a loyal comrade, Sassoon could not stay away from the front-lines while others fought, and he returned to battle. In July 1918, he was sent back to England with a head wound and he remained there until the war ended.
Sassoon was a bundle of contradictions. He was Jewish, or his father was (he left the family when Sassoon was four-years-old), the descendant of a wealthy Sephardic family. His mother was a painter who came from an old English family, and Sassoon grew up on a country estate and in the Church of England, before converting late in life to Roman Catholicism. He was an aesthete and a bohemian, a rich man who lived in a great house, but who called himself a Socialist and gave away vast sums to his friends. And Sassoon was gay, closeted at first but then remarkably open for the time. Yet, he eventually married and had a son.
Sassoon wrote six volumes of slightly fictionalized autobiography, of which the most famous was his bestselling Memoirs Of A Fox-Hunting Man (1928) and since his death there have been at 10 biographies of the man.
Most of Sassoon’s male love affairs were discreet arrangements with gentlemen more or less like himself. Among his lovers were William Park Atkin, a noted landscape, architectural and figure painter; actor/songwriter Ivor Novello; actor Glen Byam Shaw (Novello’s former boyfriend); Prince Philipp of Hesse; writer Beverley Nichols.
Stephen Tennant was the great love of Sassoon’s life. Tennant was a socialite known for his decadent lifestyle. He was called “the brightest” of the “Bright Young Things”. He was 10 years younger than Sassoon, an exotic, flamboyant creature, yet they fell for each other passionately, and traipsed together all over Europe together, before the affair eventually dissolved in tears and recriminations and in something like a nervous breakdown on Tennant’s part.
In 1933, on the rebound, and looking for stability, Sassoon married Hester Gatty, an heiress 20 years his junior. Their marriage was happy for a while and in 1936 produced a son, George Sassoon. Sassoon adored his son, but eventually the marriage ended. He was painfully estranged from George for years, and stoically endured a string of increasingly painful illnesses, all the while waiting in vain for a knighthood or the laureateship.
George Sassoon became an important scientist, linguist, translator and writer. He was taken by cancer in 2006.
Sassoon came of age during the first great period of modern gay culture. His friends and were some of the best-known writers, artists, and thinkers of the period: Evelyn Waugh, Edward Carpenter, E.M. Forster, J.R. Ackerley, T.E. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Noël Coward, and members of the Bloomsbury Group.
Sassoon left this world in 1967, a week before his 81st birthday. In 1985, Sassoon was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by his former lover and fellow war poet Wilfred Owen. It reads:
“My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
Regeneration by Pat Barker is a slightly fictionalized version of Sassoon’s life. It was made into a film starring James Wilby as Sassoon and Jonathan Pryce as W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist responsible for Sassoon’s treatment while in the sanatorium. Rivers sudden death in 1922 was a major traumatic event for Sassoon. Stevan Rimkus portrays Sassoon in the Trenches Of Hell, the eighth film in The Adventures Of Young Indiana Jones series.
Sassoon published more than 40 books, including novels and volumes of memoirs. The poems are available in volumes of selected works. All of his work is still in print.
The above photograph started my collection of vintage photos of men being affectionate. It was the opening night gift from a fellow cast member of a play in 1985. This image started me thinking about the work of Sassoon. I wonder if these men made it home and possibly had a life together. It remains haunting to me.