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Feature: In a lecture on the Great War’s soldier-poets, Jean Moorcroft Wilson honours Siegfried Sassoon

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Published: 3 November, 2011
by JEAN MOORCROFT WILSON

THE combination of momentous historical events and great personal courage and suffering has given the First World War an enduring appeal.

It is this combination I am exploring in a series of Armistice lectures on the Great War and its soldier-poets.

Next week, historian Max Arthur and I will turn our attention to Siegfried Sassoon in a lecture at the Imperial War Museum on November 12.

Sassoon is best known for his bitter anti-war poetry, satirising those he held most responsible for the carnage he witnessed in France.

But how, precisely, did he reach this point?

His first patriotic outpourings are almost more Brooke-like than Rupert Brooke, poems that glorify notions of self-sacrifice in a righteous cause.

Many factors went into the making of “Mad Jack”, as he was called by his men – the death of his younger brother at Gallipoli in November 1915, the loss of his great love, David Thomas, and his “dear” bombing sergeant, Mick O’Brien, in early 1916 and the first day of the Somme, which he witnessed on July 1 that same year.

It was the gruesome aftermath of the battle of Mametz Wood a few days later, however, which finally brought home to him the grim realities of war.

He found himself for the first time among the debris of a fierce attack, with both British and German dead lying about, “their fingers mingled in blood-stained bunches”.

The afternoon conference will start with a closer look at the battle of Mametz Wood by Max Arthur, who had the unique experience of talking to survivors of the conflict.

My own contribution will include an unpublished poem, found among some recently acquired Sassoon manuscripts.

This poem, though written after Sassoon had experienced front-line conditions for himself, suggests that his progress towards fierce anti-war protest was far less smooth than is often assumed.

Even in January 1916, when he had already drafted his first trench-poem, he could still describe one  of his fellow-soldiers, stirringly, in terms of the Arthurian hero, Galahad, riding forth with “the clouds your plume” and “the glitter­ing sky/ A host of swords” to “lead you thro’ the fight”.

Up to his experiences at Mametz Wood in July 1916, Sassoon continued to swing between lyric poetry extolling the positive aspects of his war-experience, to far harsher satires on events.

In the poetry that followed it, though lyricism and compassion are never entirely abandoned, the predom­inant tone is harshly satiric, leading to poems like “The General” and, following Arras, his public anti-war protest  of July 1917.

• Siegfried Sassoon: from Mametz Wood to The General, is on Saturday, November 12,
2.30-5.30pm, at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, SE1. Tickets (includes refresh­ments) £10, concessions for students and seniors, £7.50, from: SW Gray, 35 Pashley Road, Eastbourne, BN20 8DY. Enquiries: 020 7387 2394

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