Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Diaries, 1915-1918

Diaries, 1915-1918 by Siegfried Sassoon
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Sep 25, 11

bookshelves: biography, books-about-books, borrowed, history
Read in September, 2011

I became fascinated by Siegfried Sassoon after reading Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. Reading his diaries from the First World War gave me me even more of an insight into the nuances of this period.

Sassoon's diaries tend to swing between bucolic and nightmarish scenes. Fox hunting is interspersed with trench warfare. His time at Craiglockhart is obscured, but he is remarkably straightforward about his homosexuality (if only in terms of longing, not action). I find him a puzzling character, but also one who understands himself well - and understands (in, often, a class-inflected way) how others see him. He has the sensitivity of the poet, blended with the recklessness and even savage joy at times that fighting brings out in him. So scenes like this

As I went down the hill to Warlus I saw a very noble picture. A rampart of approaching rain, slate-coloured, blotting the plain; the foreground striped with vivid green and rich umber, lit with a gleam of sun, and a grand arc of iridescence spanning the storm. A distant farm-cart with two horses, one dark, one white, was the one thing needed to make the the whole suitably impressive - and there it was - the miniature of toil, so tiny - and the sky high, so grand.


are interspersed with these (both from France, 1916)

I am not going out for nothing tonight. I know I ought to be careful of myself, but something drives me on to look for trouble. Greaves tried to stop me going out last night; but that was child's play, only two or three sniper's shots at us, and the white rocket-lights going up while we lay flat and listened to our bumping hearts and laughed with sheer delight when the danger was over.


Maybe its a kind of romanticism. In fact, that's probably the word that separates Sassoon's account from that of Robert Graves, who brings such disgust and anger to his memoir of the war (the two knew each other, of course, and Sassoon mentions Graves frequently; it was Graves who got him through the medical board and returned to France by way of Palestine after his protest). However, one particular passage, about a Major who gives the bayonet lecture at the officers' training camp, overlaps in the two accounts: both were revolted by his patter:

'The bullet and the bayonet are brother and sister'; 'If you don't kill him, he'll kill you?' 'Stick him between the eyes, in the throat, in the chest, or round the thighs.' 'If he's on the run, only one place; get your bayonet into his kidneys; it'll go in as easy as butter.' 'Kill them, kill them; there's only one good Bosche and that's a dead 'un.' 'Quickness, anger, strenghth, good fury, accuracy of aim. Don't waste good steel. Six inches are enough - what's the use of a foot of steel sticking out of the back of a man's neck? Three inches will do him, and when he coughs, go and find another.' And so on.


Sassoon transcribed his poems into his diaries; the passage above is followed by 'The Kiss':

To these I turn, in these I trust -
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To this blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty clean from rust.

He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitter naked, cold and fair.

Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.


The fighting man, for Sassoon, has a kind of purity. Some have the intelligence to understand the horror of their situation, sent to fight a war they have no choice in; some do not, but find peace, in some strange ways, in war - once they embark, they are absolved of the responsibilities of real life. I found this one of the most fascinating of Sassoon's observations:

Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear, they begin to 'buck themselves up'. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way of of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles - nay, rewards them for their acquiescence, with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market. Hence their happiness. They have no worries, because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight - of the enemy. They are not 'going out' to do things, but to have things done to them.


There's a hint - and more of a hint, throughout the collection - of upperclassness here. But class counts for nothing when it comes to the politicians, and the fat old men at home: for Sassoon, they are little better than murderers.

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, int he majority of cases, intolerable. Their glory in senseless invective against the enemy. They glory in the mock-heroism of their young men. They glory in the mechanical phrases of the Northcliffe Press. They regard the progress of war like a game of chess, cackling about 'attrition' and 'wastage of man-power' and 'civilisation at stake'. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.


There is a ceaseless struggle within Sassoon, between the man who despairs of the war and the man who can be nowhere but in the war while it continues. It is summed up best after he receives his third wound - the return to 'Blighty' wound - when he is shot in the head by one of his own men returning from patrol one night

But I think to myself, 'Perhaps half of 'em'll be back in Blighty by the time I go back, even if I stay in France to get well'. Ans again, I think, 'How many officers are there in the Battalion who would refuse to go back to Blighty if it were made easy for them?' I swear to God there's not one. Why should I be the only one? They'd only think me a fool, if they believed it to be true that I'd really done it. And then in my heart I know that it is the only way I can keep my soul clean, and vindicate my pride in the men who love and trust me. It is the supreme thing that is asked of me. And already I am shying at it. 'We'll be sending you across to England in a few days,' murmurs the nurse who is washing my blood-clotted hair. Ans my heart stops beating for a moment. She says it so naturally, as if it were the only possible things that could happen.

I am weakening in my proud, angry resolve; all my tenderness is fading into selfish longing for safety. I close my eyes, and all I can see is the door into the garden at home, and Mother coming in with a basket of roses. And my terrier ... and the piano ...


He is sent home in the end, and it is in England that he records the end of the war:

I got to London about 6.30 and found masses of people in streets and congested Tubes, all waving flags and making fools of themselves - an outburst of mob patriotism. It was a wretched wet night, and very mild. It is a loathsome ending to the loathsome tragedy of the last four years.
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