“Something… that made Siegfried Sassoon angry was the callous unawareness of the army chiefs who made the battle plans, the ‘scarlet majors’ who ‘speed glum heroes up the line to death’, who casually speak of having ‘lost heavily in the last scrap’ and think of numbers, not individual men.
So what a friend called ‘Siegfried’s splendid war on the war’ was two-fold: against the generals sitting over their maps well out of danger, and against the ‘home front’. He particularly disliked government propaganda aimed at gaining the new recruits needed to fill the gaps made by the many thousands of men already killed. It depicted the war as a worthwhile cause to join, a sacrificial duty to fulfil: a call to battle, it implied, which only cowards would refuse.
He also loathed the way pacifism, which was what he now saw was the worthwhile cause, was spoken of as ‘cowardice’ and ‘betrayal’ – especially when such things were said by women. It was to women he addressed a poem which begins
‘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…’
The ‘decorations’ that women ‘worshipped’ were military awards for bravery. In his first days on the front line, Siegfried Sassoon had earned the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ for his reckless boldness. After helping to bring in wounded men while under fire himself, he was awarded the Military Cross. That was in 1915. In 1917, just recovered from fever and based in a garrison near Liverpool, he threw his Military Cross ribbon into the river Mersey, to express his disgust with war.
‘Weighted with significance though this action was,’ he wrote, ‘it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly on to the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility…Watching a big boat which was steaming along the horizon, I realised that protesting against the prolongation of the war was about as much use as shouting at the people on board that ship.’
4. The Statement signed ‘S. Sassoon’
All the same, he did protest. He took a stand against the war by publicly declaring he would no longer fight in it – and caused a storm.
In July 1917 he made a written statement about his objection to the war and gave it to his commanding officer. He also refused to return to the front line, though he knew that he risked court martial and severe punishment. (Some soldiers at the front who refused to fight had even been executed.)
Here are some of the words of Siegfried Sassoon’s statement:
“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that 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 sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong those 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 complacency 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.’