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Happy Birthday, Siegfried Sassoon.

September 8, 2016


Not many Englishmen have ever been gifted the magnificently Wagnerian name of Siegfried.  There was Siegfried Sassoon.  There was that made up vet character from those James Herriot books.   Erm.  That’s it I think.   Given the twentieth-century Nazification of Wagner, it seems odd to find someone with a Jewish background sporting such a name – but he was not alone, as an old friend of mine has just pointed out…

Anyhoo – Siegfried Sassoon’s 130th birthday is today.   Celebrated World War One war poet, Sassoon is perhaps better remembered (and deservedly better remembered) for making this statement in July of 1917.

“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.”

This statement ended up being published in The Times and read out in the House of Commons by a rare anti-war MP, but not before Robert Graves persuaded various authorities that Sassoon was mentally unstable.  As a consequence, Sassoon avoided a court martial and was sent to Craiglockhart hospital near Edinburgh where he was treated by the fascinating Dr W.H.R. Rivers. (See Pat Barker, Regeneration).

This letter was Sassoon’s Muhammad Ali moment.  Sassoon had been, not just a soldier, but an insanely heroic soldier, whose stupidly dangerous feats of individual initiative inspired awe among everybody near him.  By dropping his medal in the River Mersey and essentially resigning from the British Establishment to protest a cruel and unjust war, Sassoon took courage to a different level.

He seems to have essentially fallen in love with Rivers, although he fell in love with a great many people – including Ivor Novello, whom absolutely everybody fell in love with.  Sassoon’s was a passionate life, a life where thought and feeling converged, demonstrated by a lifelong quest to try to do that right thing.

Oh, and he was also a superb cricketer.

Oh and he was an alumnus of my old college.


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One Comment
  1. Oh, and he was very good-looking 🙂

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