Sue Young Histories

Siegfried Sassoon 1886 - 1967

August 23, 2008

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon CBE MC 1886 – 1967 was an English poet and author. He became known as a writer of satirical anti-war verse during World War I. He later won acclaim for his prose work.

Siegfried Sassoon wrote about homeopathy in his book Sherston’s Progress, and he was a great friend of homeopathic supporters Robert Graves and Thomas Hardy.

Sassoon was also close to Edmund William Gosse who was married to Ellen Nellie Epps (a close friend of Sassoon’s mother) whose brother Washington Epps was a famous homeopath. Ellen Nellie Epps was the daughter of homeopath George Napoleon Epps. John Epps, Ellen Nellie Epps’s uncle in law, was also a famous homeopath, and James Epps, another of Ellen Nellie Epps’s uncle in law’s was the famous homeopathic chemist.

Sassoon was born in a house named Weirleigh (which still stands) in the village of Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother. His father, Alfred, one of the wealthy Indian Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family, was disinherited for marrying outside the faith.

His mother, Theresa, belonged to the Thornycroft family, sculptors responsible for many of the best-known statues in London—her brother was Hamo Thornycroft. There was no German ancestry in Sassoon’s family; he owed his unusual first name to his mother’s predilection for the operas of Wilhelm Richard Wagner. His middle name was taken from the surname of a clergyman with whom she was friendly…

Motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the military just as the threat of World War I was realised and was in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on the day the United Kingdom declared war (4 August 1914). 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.

At around this time his younger brother Hamo was killed at Gallipoli (Rupert Brooke, whom Siegfried had briefly met, died on the way there); Hamo’s death hit Siegfried very hard.

In May of that year, he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer and in November, he was sent to First Battalion in France. He was thus brought into contact with Robert Graves and they became close friends. United by their poetic vocation, they often read and discussed one another’s work.

Though this did not have much perceptible influence on Robert 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 music, 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. 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.

Despite having been decorated for bravery, he decided in 1917 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 (called “Dick Tiltwood” in the Sherston trilogy). He 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 titled A Soldier’s Declaration, which was forwarded to the press and read out in Parliament by a sympathetic MP.

Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the military authorities decided that he was unfit for service and sent him to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia (’shell shock’).

Before declining to return to service he threw the ribbon from his Military Cross into the river Mersey; however in May 2007 the medal itself turned up in an attic at the house in Mull where his son had lived. The medal has been bought by the Royal Welch Fusiliers for display at their museum in Caernarfon.

The novel Regeneration, by Pat Barker, is a fictionalised account of this period in Sassoon’s life, and was made into a film starring Jonathan Pryce as W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist responsible for Sassoon’s treatment. W. H. R. Rivers became a kind of surrogate father to the troubled young man, and his sudden death in 1922 was a major blow to Sassoon.

At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, another poet who would eventually exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Wilfred Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry. A manuscript copy of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth containing Sassoon’s handwritten amendments survives as testimony to the extent of his influence. To all intents and purposes, Sassoon became to Wilfred OwenJohn Keats and Christ and Elijah’; surviving documents demonstrate clearly the depth of Wilfred Owen’s love and admiration for him.

Both men returned to active service in France, but Wilfred Owen was killed in 1918. Sassoon, having spent some time out of danger in Palestine, eventually returned to the Front and was almost immediately wounded again—by friendly fire, but this time in the head—and spent the remainder of the war in Britain.

After the war, Sassoon was instrumental in bringing Wilfred Owen’s work to the attention of a wider audience. Their friendship is the subject of Stephen MacDonald’s play, Not About Heroes. The war had brought Sassoon into contact with men from less advantaged backgrounds, and he had developed Socialist sympathies.

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 Daily 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, whose friend and patron he became. William 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.

Meanwhile, he was beginning to practise his homosexuality more openly, embarking on an affair with the artist, Gabriel Atkin, who had been introduced by mutual friends. During his US tour, he met a young actor who treated him callously. Nevertheless, he was adored by female audiences, including one at Vassar College.

Sassoon was a great admirer of the Welsh poet, Henry Vaughan. On a visit to Wales in 1923, he paid a pilgrimage to Henry Vaughan’s grave at Llansanffraid, 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 William 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.

Sassoon, having matured greatly as a result of his military service, continued to seek emotional fulfillment, which he at first attempted to find in a succession of love affairs with men, including the actor Ivor Novello; Novello’s former lover, the actor Glen Byam Shaw; German aristocrat Prince Philipp of Hesse; the writer Beverley Nichols; and an effete aristocrat, the Hon. Stephen Tennant.

Only the last of these made a permanent impression, though Glen Byam Shaw remained his close friend throughout his life. In December 1933, to many people’s surprise, Sassoon married Hester Gatty, who was many years his junior; this led to the birth of a child, something which he had long craved. This child, their only child, George Sassoon (1936-2006) became a noted scientist, linguist and author, and was adored by Siegfried, who wrote several poems addressed to him.

However, the marriage broke down after World War II, Sassoon apparently unable to find a compromise between the solitude he enjoyed and the companionship he craved.

Separated from his wife in 1945, Sassoon lived in seclusion at Heytesbury in Wiltshire, although he maintained contact with a circle which included E. M. Forster and J. R. Ackerley. One of his closest friends was the young cricketer, Dennis Silk.

He formed a close friendship with Vivien Hancock, headmistress of Greenways School at Ashton Gifford, which his son George Sassoon attended. The relationship provoked Hester to make some strong accusations against Vivien Hancock, who responded with the threat of legal action. Towards the end of his long life, he was converted to Roman Catholicism, and was admitted to the faith at Downside Abbey, close to his home. He also paid regular visits to the nuns at Stanbrook Abbey, and the abbey press printed commemorative editions of some of his poems.

He died 7 days before his 81st birthday, and is buried at St Andrew’s Church, Mells, Somerset, close to Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic priest and writer whom he admired.

Siegfried Sassoon’s only child, George Sassoon, died of cancer in 2006. George had three children, two of whom were killed in a car crash in 1996.


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