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Siegfried Sassoon

John Simkin

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Siegfried Sassoon was the most outspoken of the war poets. Up until recently it was thought he only wrote poems critical of the war. However, this poem has just been discovered that was written in 1915.

(1) Because We Are Going (1915)

Because we are going from our wonted places

To be task-ridden by one shattering Aim,

And terror hides in all our laughing faces

That had no will to die, no thirst for fame,

Hear our last word. In Hell we seek for Heaven;

The agony of wounds shall make us clean;

And the failures of our sloth shall be forgiven

When Silence holds the songs that might have been,

And what we served remains, superb, unshaken,

England, our June of blossom that shines above

Disastrous War; for whom we have forsaken

Ways that were rich and gleeful and filled with love.

Thus are we heroes; since we might not choose

To live where Honour gave us life to lose.

Compare this poem with two he wrote in 1917.

(2) Glory of Women (1917)

You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,

Or wounded in a mentionable place.

You worship decorations; you believe

That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.

You make us shells. You listen with delight,

By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.

You crown our distant ardours while we fight,

And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.

You can't believe that British troops 'retire'

When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,

Trampling the terrible corpses - blind with blood.

O German mother dreaming by the fire,

While you are knitting socks to send your son

His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

(3) Suicide in the Trenches (1917)

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.

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The poem was found by the historian, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, who is currently writing a biography of Sassoon. It was found among Sassoon's papers held at Texas University. It was written before he actually arrived in France. Wilson believes that the poem was influenced by the work of Rupert Brooke. His 1917 poems were of course based on his own experiences. His poetry then went on to influence Wilfred Owen, who also felt like Brooke and Sassoon in 1914.

One of the best examples of how someone changed his mind about the war was the Manchester Guardian journalist, Charles Edward Montague. He had been a pacifist in his youth. He was chief leader writer at the newspaper and argued in the summer of 1914 against Britain becoming involved in a war with Germany.

However, once war had been declared, Montague believed that it was important to give full support to the British government in its attempts to achieve victory.

He wrote a letter to his father on 24th November, 1914: “I have felt for some time, and especially since I have been writing leaders urging people to enlist, a strong wish to do the same myself. I wrote last week to the War Office to ask if there was any chance of getting over the difficulty of my few years over the limit of age, and I was told that although the War Office could not directly break the rule itself, it did not veto exceptions made by those responsible for the raising of new battalions locally.”

Although forty-seven with a wife and seven children, Montague managed to join the army. Montague went to France in November, 1915. When he arrived at the Western Front, his commanding officer questioned the wisdom of having a man in his late forties in the trenches.

Montague was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and transferred to Military Intelligence. For the next two years he had the task of writing propaganda for the British Army and censoring articles written by the five authorized English journalists on the Western Front.

In 1922 he published the book, Disenchantment. It included the following passage:

"The freedom of Europe," "The war to end war," "The overthrow of militarism," "The cause of civilization" - most people believe so little now in anything or anyone that they would find it hard to understand the simplicity and intensity of faith with which these phrases were once taken among our troops, or the certitude felt by hundreds of thousands of men who are now dead that if they were killed their monument would be a new Europe not soured or soiled with the hates and greeds of the old.

So we had failed - had won the fight and lost the prize; the garland of war was withered before it was gained. The lost years, the broken youth, the dead friends, the women's overshadowed lives at home, the agony and bloody sweat - all had gone to darken the stains which most of us had thought to scour out of the world that our children would live in. Many men felt, and said to each other, that they had been fooled."

Of course, Montague had played an important role in fooling the people.


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