Siegfried Sassoon


Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC (8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was an English poet, writer, and soldier.
Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, he became one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirized the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon's view, were responsible for a jingoism-fueled war.
Sassoon became a focal point for dissent within the armed forces when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the war in his "Soldier's Declaration" of 1917, culminating in his admission to a military psychiatric hospital; this resulted in his forming a friendship with Wilfred Owen, who was greatly influenced by him.
Sassoon later won acclaim for his prose work, notably his three-volume 'fictionalized' autobiography.


Siegfried Sassoon was born and grew up in the neo-gothic home named "Weirleigh" in Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother.
His father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon (1861–1895), son of Sassoon David Sassoon, was a member of the wealthy Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family.
For marrying outside the faith, Alfred was disinherited.
Siegfried's mother, Theresa, belonged to the Thornycroft family, sculptors responsible for many of the best-known statues in London - her brother was Sir Hamo Thornycroft.
There was no German ancestry in Siegfried's family; his mother named him Siegfried because of her love of Wagner's operas.
Siegfried was the first of three sons, the others being Michael and Hamo. When he was four years old his parents separated.
In 1895 Alfred Sassoon died of tuberculosis. Sassoon was educated at the New Beacon School, Sevenoaks, Kent; at Marlborough College, Marlborough, Wiltshire (where he was a member of Cotton House), and at Clare College, Cambridge, where from 1905 to 1907 he read history.
He went down from Cambridge without a degree and spent the next few years hunting, playing cricket and writing verse: some he published privately.
Since his father had been disinherited from the Sassoon fortune for marrying a non-Jew, Siegfried had only a small private fortune that allowed him to live modestly without having to earn a living (however, he would later be left a generous legacy by an aunt, Rachel Beer, allowing him to buy the great estate of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire.
His first published success, 'The Daffodil Murderer' (1913), was a parody of John Masefield's 'The Everlasting Mercy'.
Robert Graves, in 'Good-Bye to All That' describes it as a "parody of Masefield which, midway through, had forgotten to be a parody and turned into rather good Masefield." 
Sassoon expressed his opinions on the political situation before the onset of the First World War thus—"France was a lady, Russia was a bear, and performing in the county cricket team was much more important than either of them".
Sassoon wanted to play for Kent County Cricket Club; Kent Captain Frank Marchant was a neighbour of Sassoon.
Siegfried often turned out for Bluehouses at the Nevill Ground, where he sometimes played alongside Arthur Conan Doyle.
He also played cricket for his house at Marlborough College, once taking 7 wickets for 18 runs. 
Although an enthusiast, Sassoon was not good enough to play for Kent, but he played cricket for Matfield, and later for the Downside Abbeyteam.


Motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the British Army just as the threat of a new European war was recognized, and was in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on 4 August 1914, the day the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland declared war on Germany
He broke his arm badly in a riding accident, and was put out of action before even leaving England, spending the spring of 1915 convalescing.

Siegfried Sassoon - 1915
He was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion (Special Reserve), Royal Welch Fusiliers, as a second lieutenant on 29 May 1915.
On 1 November his younger brother Hamo was killed in the Gallipoli Campaign, and in the same month Siegfried was sent to the 1st Battalion in France.
There he met Robert Graves, and they became close friends.
United by their poetic vocation, they often read and discussed each other's work.
Though this did not have much perceptible influence on Graves's poetry, his views on what may be called 'gritty realism' profoundly affected Sassoon's concept of what constituted poetry.
He soon became horrified by the realities of war, and the tone of his writing changed completely: where his early poems exhibit a Romantic, dilettantish sweetness, his war poetry moves to an increasingly discordant music, intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propaganda.
Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time, and this philosophy of 'no truth unfitting' had a significant effect on the movement towards 'Modernist' poetry.
Sassoon's periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades, he scattered sixty German soldiers.
Sassoon's bravery was inspiring to the extent that soldiers of his company said that they felt confident only when they were accompanied by him.
He often went out on night-raids and bombing patrols, and demonstrated ruthless efficiency as a company commander.

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2015
the Military Cross
Deepening depression at the horror and misery the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed "Mad Jack" by his men for his near-suicidal exploits.
On 27 July 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross.
Despite his decorations and reputation, however, in 1917 Sassoon decided to make a stand against the conduct of the war.
One of the reasons for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend David Cuthbert Thomas, who appears as "Dick Tiltwood" in the Sherston trilogy.
Sassoon would spend years trying to overcome his grief.
At the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty; instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer entitled 'Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration'.
Forwarded to the press and read out in the House of Commons by a sympathetic member of parliament, the letter was seen by some as treasonous ("I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority"), or at best as condemning the war government's motives ("I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest").
Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the Under-Secretary of State for War, Ian Macpherson, decided that he was unfit for service and had him sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia ("shell shock").
Before declining to return to active service, Sassoon had thrown the ribbon of his Military Cross into the river Mersey.
According to his description of this incident in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer he did not, as one would infer from the context of his action, do this as a symbolic rejection of militaristic values, but simply out of the need to perform some destructive act in catharsis of the black mood which was afflicting him; one of his pre-war sporting trophies, had he had one to hand, would have served his purpose equally well.

W. H. R. Rivers
The novel 'Regeneration', by Pat Barker, is a fictionalized account of this period in Sassoon's life, and 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.
Rivers became a kind of surrogate father to the troubled young man, and his sudden death in 1922 was a major blow to Sassoon.

Wilfred Owen
At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet who would eventually exceed him in fame.
It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry.
A manuscript copy of Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', containing Sassoon's handwritten amendments, survives as testimony to the extent of his influence and is currently on display at London's Imperial War Museum.
Sassoon became to Owen "Keats and Christ and Elijah"; surviving documents demonstrate clearly the depth of Owen's homo-erotic love and admiration for him.
Both men returned to active service in France, but Owen was killed in 1918.
Sassoon, despite all this, was promoted to lieutenant, and having spent some time out of danger in Palestine, eventually returned to the Front.
On 13 July 1918, Sassoon was almost immediately wounded again - by friendly fire when he was shot in the head by a fellow British soldier, who had mistaken him for a German (?) near Arras, France.
As a result, he spent the remainder of the war in Britain.
By this time he had been promoted acting captain.
He relinquished his commission on health grounds on 12 March 1919, but was allowed to retain the rank of captain.
After the war, Sassoon was instrumental in bringing Owen's work to the attention of a wider audience.
Their friendship is the subject of Stephen MacDonald's play, 'Not About Heroes'.


Having lived for a period at Oxford, where he spent more time visiting literary friends than studying, he dabbled briefly in the politics of the Labour movement, and in 1919 took up a post as literary editor of the socialist Daily Herald.
He lived at 54 Tufton Street, Westminster from 1919 to 1925; the house is no longer standing, but the location of his former home is marked by a memorial plaque.
During his period at the Herald, Sassoon was responsible for employing several eminent names as reviewers, including E. M. Forster and Charlotte Mew, and commissioned original material from "names" like Arnold Bennett and Osbert Sitwell.
His artistic interests extended to music.
While at Oxford he was introduced to the young William Walton, to whom he became a friend and patron.
Walton later dedicated his 'Portsmouth Point' overture to Sassoon in recognition of his financial assistance and moral support.
Sassoon later embarked on a lecture tour of the USA, as well as travelling in Europe and throughout Britain.
He acquired a car, a gift from the publisher Frankie Schuster, and became renowned among his friends for his lack of driving skill, but this did not prevent him making full use of the mobility it gave him.
Sassoon was a great admirer of the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan.
On a visit to Wales in 1923, he paid a pilgrimage to Vaughan's grave at Llansantffraed, Powys, and there wrote one of his best-known peacetime poems, "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan".
The deaths of three of his closest friends - Edmund Gosse, Thomas Hardy and Frankie Schuster (the publisher) - within a short space of time, came as another serious setback to his personal happiness.
At the same time, Sassoon was preparing to take a new direction.
While in America, he had experimented with a novel.
In 1928, he branched out into prose, with 'Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man', the anonymously-published first volume of a fictionalized autobiography, which was almost immediately accepted as a 'classic', bringing its author new fame as a humorous writer. 
The book won the 1928 James Tait Black Award for fiction.
Sassoon followed it with 'Memoirs of an Infantry Officer' (1930), and 'Sherston's Progress' (1936).
In later years, he revisited his youth and early manhood with three volumes of genuine autobiography, which were also widely acclaimed.
These were 'The Old Century', 'The Weald of Youth', and 'Siegfried's Journey'.


Sassoon, having matured greatly as a result of his military service, continued to seek emotional fulfillment, initially in a succession of love affairs with men, including the landscape architectural and figure painter, draftsman and illustrator, William Park "Gabriel" Atkin, actor Ivor Novello; Novello's former lover, the actor Glen Byam Shaw; German aristocrat Prince Philipp of Hesse; the writer Beverley Nichols and Stephen Tennant.

Glencairn Alexander "Glen" Byam Shaw, (13 December 1904 – 29 April 1986), was an English actor. Actress Constance Collier was impressed by Byam Shaw and used her influence to gain him roles. Among those to whom she introduced him was Ivor Novello (see below), then a leading figure in London theater. This drew him into contact with the poet Siegfried Sassoon, a friend of Collier; he and Byam Shaw became close. Their friendship lasted for the rest of Sassoon's life, although they ceased to be 'partners' quite quickly when Sassoon became involved with Stephen Tennant.

David Ivor Davies (15 January 1893 – 6 March 1951), better known as Ivor Novello, was a Welsh composer and actor who became one of the most popular British entertainers of the first half of the 20th century. In 1917 Sir Edward Marsh introduced him to the actor Bobbie Andrews, who became Novello's life partner.

Philipp, Prince and Landgrave of Hesse (6 November 1896 – 25 October 1980) was head of the Electoral House of Hesse from 1940 to 1980. He joined the National Socialist Party in 1930, and, when they gained power with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, he became Governor of Hesse-Nassau. He served as governor from 1933. He was a grandson of Frederick III, German Emperor, and a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, as well as the son-in-law to Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. His relative Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was named after him on 10 June 1921.

John Beverley Nichols (9 September 1898 – 15 September 1983) was an author, playwright, journalist, composer, and public speaker. Between his first book, the novel Prelude, published in 1920, and his last, a book of poetry, Twilight, published in 1982, Nichols wrote more than 60 books and plays.  He went to school at Marlborough College, and went to Balliol College, Oxford, and was President of the Oxford Union and editor of Isis. Nichols died in 1983. He is buried in Glatton, England.

Siegfried and
- Garmisch 1929
Only the last of these relationships made a permanent impression on Sassoon, though Shaw remained his close friend throughout his life.

Stephen James Napier Tennant (21 April 1906 – 28 February 1987) was a British socialite. He was born in British nobility, the youngest son of a Scottish peer, Edward Tennant, and the former Pamela Wyndham, one of the Wyndham sisters. His mother was also a cousin of Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), Oscar Wilde's lover. His friends included Rex Whistler, Cecil Beaton, the Sitwells, Lady Diana Manners and the Mitford girls. He is widely considered to be the model for Lord Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited'. When Tennant died in 1987, he had far outlived most of his contemporaries.

In September 1931, Sassoon rented and began to live at Fitz House, Teffont Magna, Wiltshire.
In December 1933, to many people's surprise, he married Hester Gatty, who was many years his junior; this led to the birth of a child, something which he had long craved.
This only child George (1936–2006), became a scientist, linguist and author, and was adored by Siegfried, who wrote several poems addressed to him, however, the marriage broke down after the Second World War.
Separated from his wife in 1945, Sassoon lived in seclusion at Heytesbury in Wiltshire, although he maintained contact with a circle which included E M Forster and J R Ackerley. 
One of his closest friends was the young cricketer Dennis Silk.
He formed a close friendship with Vivien Hancock, headmistress of Greenways School at Ashton Gifford, which his son George attended.
Sassoon was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1951 New Year Honours.
Towards the end of his life, he converted to Roman Catholicism.
He had hoped that Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic priest and writer whom he admired, would instruct him in the faith, but Knox was too ill to do so.
The priest Sebastian Moore was chosen to instruct him instead, and Sassoon was admitted to the faith at Downside Abbey, close to his home.
He also paid regular visits to the nuns at Stanbrook Abbey, and the abbey press printed commemorative editions of some of his poems.
During this time he also became interested in the supernatural, and joined the Ghost Club.

Siegfried Sassoon died one week before his 81st birthday, and is buried at St Andrew's Church, Mells, Somerset, close to Ronald Knox.

to be continued.....