Today is the birthday (1886) of Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC 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-fuelled 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. (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/wilfred-owen/ )
Sassoon was born and grew up in the neo-gothic mansion 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. His middle name, Loraine, was the surname of a clergyman with whom she was friendly.
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 of which he published privately. Since his father had been disinherited from the Sassoon fortune for marrying a Gentile, Sassoon 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.”
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 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. 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 Sassoon 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 tone, 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. He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signaling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him.
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. 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; the citation read:
2nd Lt. Siegfried Lorraine [sic] Sassoon, 3rd (attd. 1st) Bn., R. W. Fus.
For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.
Sassoon was also later (unsuccessfully) recommended for the Victoria Cross.
Despite his decorations and reputation, 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 willful 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 or “shell shock” (now usually referred to as post traumatic stress disorder).
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.
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 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. 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 fictionalised 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.
Siegfried Sassoon died one week before his 81st birthday, of stomach cancer, and is buried at St Andrew’s Church, Mells, Somerset.
Sassoon was born in Kent which at one time was known as the Garden Of England. It lost that title to South Yorkshire after its orchards and farmlands became overgrown with suburban houses. For centuries it was legendary for cherry and apple orchards, hops, and the nut, related to hazelnuts (filberts), the cobnut. Cobnuts can sometimes be found raw, that is, not dried or roasted, and are delicious in salads. They are also dried like hazelnuts with a similar flavor. I feel some inventiveness coming on, so I am going to speculate on a recipe which I will experiment with when I get hold of a food processor (and counter space for it): cherries with nut crumble. My basic idea is to make a crumble topping, but to replace some of the rolled oats with coarsely ground hazelnuts or cobnuts. So . . .
© Cherry Nut Crumble
First make your cherry filling. Remove the stalks and pit about 20 ounces of sour cherries. Place in a non-reactive pan, cover with a 50-50 mix of sugar and water, bring to a boil, and simmer until the cherries are soft, but not mushy. You can use a 21 ounce can of cherry pie filling if you are lazy. With a slotted spoon transfer the cooked cherries to a deep ovenproof dish.
In a food processor combine 1 cup of all purpose flour, 1 cup of granulated sugar, ½ cup of unsalted butter that has been chilled and diced, ½ cup rolled oats, and ½ cup hazelnuts or cobnuts coarsely chopped. Pulse the mix 8 to 10 times until all the ingredients are chopped and well mixed. Pour the crumble mix over the cherries and pat it down firmly. Dot the top with butter and bake at 350°F for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden and the cherry filling is bubbling.
Serve with egg custard, vanilla ice cream, or whipped cream.
Crumbles are also delicious served chilled the next day with whipped cream.