Siegfried Sassoon is recognized as one of the giants of war literature in the English-speaking world.
A British gentleman-turned-soldier, his writings, including devastating sketches of trench life published even as the war raged, speak to the universality of the war experience.
After the battle of Verdun ended in December, 1916, the burden of the war effort shifted to the British and the civilian army that was raised. Many men joined in a rush of patriotic fever and at first there weren't enough uniforms and rifles to go around. Even advance training for officers could be comical, as Sassoon recorded:
On July 31, 1917, General Douglas Haig launched an attack near the town of Ypres -- now called the Battle of Passchendaele. (This would be the third battle at Ypres, the other two having taken place in 1914, and 1915.) The initial advance ended successfully, but then weeks passed before the British were ordered to continue, by which time the men had to contend with the wettest fall in years. Soon, men, animals and equipment were swallowed up in mud that was often like quicksand. Thousands of men on both sides drowned in mud and in rain-filled trenches and craters.
|Memories of an Infantry Officer|
By Siegfried Sassoon
Sometimes a renowned big-game hunter gave us demonstrations of the art of sniping. He was genial and enthusiastic; but I was no good at rifle-shooting... A gas expert from G.H.Q. would inform us that 'gas was still in its infancy.' (Most of us were either dead or disabled before gas had had time to grow up.)
But the star turn in the classroom was a massive sandy-haired Highland Major whose subject was 'The Spirit of the Bayonet.' He spoke with homicidal eloquence... Man, it seemed, had been created to jab the life out of the Germans. The hear the Major talk, one might have thought that he did it himself every day after breakfast.
Sassoon's experience at Passchendaele is reflected in his poem, Mud and Rain.
Mud and Rain
By Siegfried Sassoon
Mud and rain and wretchedness and blood.
Why should jolly soldier-boys complain?
God made these before the roofless Flood -
Mud and rain.
Mangling cramps and bullets through the brain,
Jesus never guessed them when He died.
Jesus had a purpose for His pain,
Ay, like abject beasts we shed our blood,
Often asking if we die in vain.
Gloom conceals us in a soaking sack --
Mud and rain.
Siegfried Sassoon survived the Great War, but he continued to re-visit the trenches in his poetry and pose for the rest of his life. He couldn't forget his experiences, but he feared that most of us would. He died in 1967.
By Siegfried Sassoon
HAVE you forgotten yet? ...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same -- and War's a bloody game. ...
Have you forgotten yet? ...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets.
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--
And dawn coming, dirty-white and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, "Is it all going to happen again?"
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads - those ashen-grey
Mask of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.
Wilfred Owen, a 24 year old British officer and poet, went off to war writing verses about glory and sacrifice.
The words "Dulce Et Decorum Est" are Latin and mean "it is sweet and right." This phrase was widely understood at the start of the Great War and often quoted to mean it was "a wonderful and great honor" to fight and die for your country.
Soon after arriving at the Western Front, Owen began searching for words to describe the slaughter taking place in the trenches. On 16 January 1917 he wrote to his mother describing a deeply disturbing baptism of fire on the Western Front:
Dulce Et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
My Own Sweet Mother,
I can see no excuse deceiving you about these last 4 days...
I have not been at the front.
I have been in front of it.
I held an advanced post, that is, a "dug-out" in the middle of No Man's Land...the ground was not mud... but an octopus of sucking clay, relieved only by craters full of water. Men had been known to drown in it.
The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn't.
Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life. I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees.
Your very own W.E.O. x
Wilfred Owen died in the last weeks of the war. He was 25 years old. His works were published posthumously.