Saturday, 28 December 2013

New Year 1914: a snapshot of world events

Since most people have the conception that no one in Britain anticipated the outbreak of war in 1914, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back in time to the start of that year - from a century later - and find out what was happening in the world.  Although the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo did not occur until June, signs of the conflict to come had been recognised by politicians for at least two years prior to the events that sparked the actual outbreak of war.

The fact that I couldn't find very much at all to help me indicates that most people's conception is probably correct.  The UK on 1st January 1914 seems to have been rather a quiet place.  One of the most exciting things happening in Europe was the international rugby match between France and Ireland in Paris, kicking off a new season of the Five Nations Championship.  Ireland scored two tries to defeat the home XV in a closely-fought but low-scoring match.  However, it would be England who emerged victorious at the end of the championship, beating off all-comers, a fact that the sports-loving Siegfried Sassoon no doubt noted.

Siegfried would have been even more interested in the third Test match played by the touring England cricket team in South Africa, which also began on 1st January.  England won the toss and chose to bat.  Their opener, the great Jack Hobbs, scored 92 to help them to an almost unassailable first innings lead; their victory gave them a 3-0 lead in the series overall.

Elsewhere in the British Empire, the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria were merged into one colony - still, of course, under British rule.  The name "Nigeria" seems to have been coined by Lady Lugard, the former ''Times'' journalist Flora Shaw.  Unusually for a woman, she had travelled widely in the course of her career and had been the paper's Colonial Editor; she came up with the name some years before she married Sir Frederick Lugard, who would go on to be the Governor-General of the new merged colony.

At 8am on 1st January 1914, a crowd of about three thousand people began to gather on the jetty at St Petersburg, Florida, USA, to watch the take-off of the first commercial flight in the history of aviation. The pilot was the memorably-named Antony Habersack Jannus; his sole passenger was Abram C Phiel, the town's former mayor, who had paid $400 for a 23-minute flight to Tampa, which would normally take three hours by train.  Pilot and passenger arrived safely at their destination, and thus began a regular passenger service.

Of more interest to those with an artistic bent, perhaps, is the expiry of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which had been in operation since 1886 (coincidentally the year of Siegfried's birth).  Neither the UK nor the USA had fully signed up to the agreement, but the Liceu in Barcelona did not miss the trick.  Five minutes after the convention expired at midnight, the theatre launched its new production of Wagner's opera Parsifal, previously the exclusive preserve of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Gustav Holst, a British composer of German and Eastern European ancestry, began composing his orchestral suite The Planets, which remains his best-known work, around this time.  Holst later denied any link between the "Mars" movement and the outbreak of war, claiming that it had been completed well before the summer's catastrophic chain of events.  The German composer Richard Strauss was simultaneously working on his score for the ballet Josephslegende, based on the Biblical story of Joseph.  It had not gone well, with Strauss remarking to a correspondent that he did not like the subject matter and composing it had been "a hell of an effort".  The work would, however, be ready by May 1914 when it was premiered at the Paris Opera. Thereafter, the choreographer Serge Diaghilev would restrict himself to working with French and Russian composers until the end of the war.

The New Year celebrations were muted for one community in South Wales.  At the Corymynydd Colliery in Cwmavon, David Howell, a widower aged 44, was crushed by a falling rock and killed instantly.  It was less than three months since the explosion at Senghenydd Colliery near Caerphilly had claimed 440 lives, the worst mining disaster in British history.  Life was hard for many in the industrial valleys, as Siegfried would witness at first hand in the post-war years when he went to Merthyr to report on the plight of striking miners.

At Christmas 1913, Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, had visited his home area of Criccieth in North Wales, where a reporter from the Daily Chronicle interviewed him to find out his views on the amount the nation was spending on armaments.  "I cannot think of any advantage," said the Chancellor, "which has been reaped by any country in the world from this increase of military and naval expenditure." With a curious lack of foresight (or perhaps a desire to keep the truth from the public), he went on to comment that "our relations with Germany are infinitely more friendly now than they have been for years".

Striking miners were not a peculiarity of the British Isles.  Following a disaster when over seventy people were crushed to death at a Christmas party in Calumet, Michigan, USA, resentment against the local copper mining company remained strong and a strike that had already been going on for five months continued until April 1914; the men involved had no idea that they were likely to find themselves in an even more dangerous situation if and when the USA was dragged into the war that threatened Europe.  Their president, Woodrow Wilson, was preoccupied with the national economy, and would spend the next three years doing his best to keep his country out of the war.  He had recently made the statement (often misreported in later years)  that "the United States will never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest".

The Americans had plenty to be optimistic about.  The Woolworth Building, New York's first skyscraper, had opened in May, the Lincoln Highway in October, and in December Ford had introduced the world's first moving assembly line.  The USA had little to gain by supporting Britain and her allies.  Thus there was plenty of popular support for Wilson's strategy, and only the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 would turn the tide of opinion against him.

On the other side of the globe, Australians had no thought of being drawn into a European war.  The progressive young country had its own problems, but the future looked bright.  Australia was even advertising for "healthy British lads of good character" to work and live there; they wanted to get away from the idea that theirs was a nation descended from convicts.  As if to demonstrate how civilised they were, they would be quick to respond to the call to arms, when it came, from their mother country.

Italy and France were at least back on friendly terms.  On 30th December 1913, the Italian government returned the Mona Lisa to its neighbours.  The painting had been stolen from the Louvre in 1911; Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso were among the suspects, but the real culprit was an Italian employee who believed that Leonardo's masterpiece belonged in its homeland.  The thief was apprehended when he tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence on 12th December, but the authorities took advantage of their temporary possession to ensure the Italian public had a chance to view it before handing it back to the French as a kind of New Year present.

What about the enemy?  In October, Arthur Zimmerman, Germany's deputy Foreign Minister, told Edward Goschen, Britain's ambassador in Berlin, that Austria's recent ultimatum to Serbia "might lead to serious consequences".  The Second Balkan War had concluded in the summer of 1913, with the Treaty of Bucharest.  In Serbia, the country that had gained most from that treaty, the Black Hand, effectively a terrorist organisation, was on the rise, numbering Crown Prince Alexander among its supporters.  Alexander would soon become regent, when his father, the ageing King Peter I, decided to "retire" early in 1914.

In November 1913, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the couple whose assassination seven months later would spark off the war, had been entertained at Windsor Castle by King George V and Queen Mary. Many European courts still declined to welcome the couple because the Archduke's wife, Sophie, had begun life as a commoner; theirs was a morganatic marriage.  In the same month, the elderly King Otto of Bavaria, who had for some years been confined under medical supervision at a palace in Munich, was deposed and replaced by a cousin, Ludwig III, who was stolidly pro-German.  He would be Bavaria's last king.  Among the volunteers who joined his army in early 1914 was 25-year-old Adolf Hitler.

Karl Barth, an eminent theologian born in Switzerland just a few months before Siegfried Sassoon was born at Weirleigh, had recently married and was serving as a pastor in the Reformed church.  Barth would quickly reject German Protestant liberal thinking when its proponents, such as Adolf Harnack and Wilhelm Hermann, came out in open support of the war.  His own country would remain neutral with difficulty, being forced to deploy troops the length of its border to maintain this position.

King Constantine I of Greece, who had become king following the assassination of his Danish-born father, King George I, in 1913, would have an equally difficult task in maintaining his country's neutrality. Considered a German sympathiser by the Allies, he would be forced to abdicate in 1917.  By 1939, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Germany, Turkey, and of course Russia, would all have done away permanently with their monarchies.

How the world has changed in a century!  To me, most of the events I have recounted above seem so remote as to be almost unbelievable; and yet, when leafing through The Weald of Youth, I always find myself marvelling at Siegfried Sassoon's astute observations of human nature, as relevant today as they ever were.  If only things had changed enough in the past hundred years to reassure us that World War III will never take place.

Friday, 20 December 2013

A Christmas Truce

The latest edition of the IWM's First World War Centenary newsletter highlights the topic of "Christmas at War", which is a coincidence as that's what I was just going to write about.  Not really a coincidence, of course, since it's only five days until the big day is upon us, but certainly fortuitous from my point of view as it has given me a few thoughts beyond the obvious - the obvious being the well-worn story of the Christmas Truce of 1914.  For some reason, the first thing that always comes to mind when I hear the story is an episode of Steptoe and Son, in which evil old Albert Steptoe became sentimental when recollecting his experiences in the trenches.  "And then," he recounts to his son Harold, "he went back to his trench and I went back to mine."  "And then," adds Harold, "you shot him."  

It's the kind of dialogue Siegfried Sassoon could have written if he'd ever become a TV scriptwriter.  Wilfrid Brambell, who played Steptoe senior, never served in the war, having been too young at the time (and Irish to boot), but he would certainly have remembered it, and it always surprised me that jokes about the war were allowed, especially on the BBC, at a time when many viewers would have had clear memories of those terrible years.  Perhaps there were complaints.  There were certainly complaints about a later sitcom, Dad's Army, when it first appeared on screen in 1968, yet it went on to become one of the all-time jewels in the BBC's crown.

Dad's Army was based on the true experiences of writer Jimmy Perry, who had served in the Home Guard at the age of seventeen and modelled many of the characters on people he remembered, in much the same way as Sassoon fictionalised his own experiences in the Sherston trilogy.  It would not have done for those not personally involved in the war to have made light of it, but for soldiers to do so was almost de rigueur; how otherwise would they have kept their spirits up?

It has been estimated that over 100,000 men participated in unofficial truces up and down the front line at Christmas 1914.  It seems to have been the Germans who started it - the truce, that is - by decorating parts of their trenches with candles and Christmas trees, and proceeding to sing carols.  But there was so much more to Christmas 1914 than games of football in No Man's Land and the exchange of cigarettes.  In December, the women of Germany wrote an open letter to the "women of all nations", urging them not to let "the thunder of guns and the shouts of the jingoes" cause them to forget their humanity.  The letter was printed in a British magazine, and an Open Christmas Letter was issued in response by a group of prominent women led by Emily Hobhouse; the signatories included Margaret Bondfield and Eva Gore-Booth.  This letter had to be sent to the neutral USA for publication.

The restrictions on the French press were far worse; they were not allowed to report that French soldiers had participated in a truce with the enemy, and this led to the impression that the truce had happened only in British-held sectors of the Western Front and helped give it the status of a legend, resulting in the fact that many people in later years did not believe it had actually happened.

Thus we see that, long before Siegfried Sassoon began making his outspoken criticisms of the way the war was being handled, there were many people throughout Europe who did not approve of it and would gladly have ended it immediately if they had been able.  Most importantly, such people existed on both sides. However, just as Sylvia Pankhurst, who was speaking out against the war as early as October 1914, took the decision to support the British war effort by providing work and food for servicemen's wives, so the German Social Democratic Party went from protesting against the declaration of war to supporting their government, and the French socialists behaved in similar fashion; the assassination of the pacifist Jean Jaurès on 31 July 1914 was a major blow to their hopes of pulling back from the brink.

Could the war have been stopped at this stage?  I am no expert on either the politics of the time or the military strategies of the countries involved, but it seems to me that what caused it to continue, despite the sincere wishes of the common people, was an unwillingness on the part of their respective governments to give way, to be seen to "fail" or "lose" the war they had started.  Let us not dwell on that thought as we head towards the season of goodwill.  Let us just be grateful that there were men like Sassoon and Owen among the troops, to tell it like it was; if it were not for them, we might have forgotten.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Stand To!

No, I'm not referring to the Sassoon poem ("I'd been on duty from two till four", etc) but to the title of the Western Front Association's regular publication.  Right from the start of the SSF, we've had many shared members, but in recent years our collaboration with the WFA has reached new levels and, I trust, will continue for many years into the future.  "Stand To!" comes out three times a year, alternating with the equally excellent "Bulletin".  Both provide many potential hours of happy reading.

Needless to say, although we in the Fellowship have much common ground with the WFA, their focus is different.  One of our committee came close to offending a member, a little while ago, by referring to him as a "First World War enthusiast" - it goes without saying that he didn't mean it in the literal sense.  I don't think there can be anyone in the SSF who feels enthusiastic either about the fact that the war was fought or about the way that it was fought.  What our organisation celebrates is the resilience, courage and determination of those who fought it, and most of all the creative work that emerged as a result.  

The Western Front Association tends to have a more military focus.  Many of its members are ex-service people, and are naturally interested in the strategy and tactics, the technology and the terrain, but that does not make them war "enthusiasts" either.  Like us, they have a very broad range of interests.  On page 25 of the latest bulletin, which I received this week, is a beautiful reproduction of a painting entitled "In Flanders Fields", which was done by an American lady in the 1920s and uses the words of MacCrae's poem as the central feature of an Art Nouveau illustration in stunning colours.  Two types of inspiration - an outstanding piece of literature and an outstanding work of art - both born out of one of the most destructive and unhappy episodes in world history.

Reading the WFA's publications, however, it is clear that many of its members agree with Gary Sheffield that the war was neither pointless nor ill-conceived - a view I suspect few SSF members would share.  "We shouldn't rely on Wilfred Owen's version of events," wrote Professor Sheffield in The Guardian last June.  (I would like to think that he decided to lay off Siegfried after I gave him an SSF pen at an event in 2012.)  He described the war as "an existential struggle", which seems a fair description if you look at it from the point of view of the individual soldier.  

An alternative view, quoted by the editor of the Bulletin, is that of Professor Jay Winter: Speaking of the outbreak of war in 1914, Winter wrote: "what a disaster that moment was, a moment when the population of Europe was frogmarched in to an unnecessary war, and learned that the only way to win it was with hatred and violence".  When he had the leisure, Sassoon certainly recognised an unpleasant side of himself brought out by the war, a side that was capable of hating and killing Germans whom he would ordinarily have preferred to have as friends.  Yet when it came down to making his stand, he placed the blame squarely on the politicians, not on the military commanders.

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has caused many of us to reflect on what might have happened, on how world leaders might have pursued a different course of action had they been capable of foreseeing how the war would turn out.  Perhaps only a reformed terrorist like Mandela can be expected to recognise how much more can be achieved by peaceful negotiation and settlement than by fighting.  Sadly, history has a tendency to repeat itself and we already know that, whatever the moral rights and wrongs of the situation, the lesson of the First World War is likely to have little impact on future events, or at least none for the better.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Children at War

Among many First World War-related items in the latest edition of BBC History magazine was a snippet about Sidney Lewis.  The name will be unfamiliar to many of those reading this blog.  Sidney Lewis has recently been confirmed as the war's youngest authenticated combatant, having joined up in August 1915 at the age of twelve, fooling officialdom into believing him some years older.

Lewis was one of the lucky ones.  Having run away from his home in Tooting, he spent several months in training before seeing active service with the 106th Machine Gun Company.  A year after joining up, his location became known to his mother, who duly sent off a copy of his birth certificate to the War Office, and received a response stating that "the lad will be discharged with all possible speed" (perhaps a rather unfortunate way of putting it). 

The story inevitably put me in mind of Dannie Abse's memorable poem "Cousin Sidney", even though the setting for the latter is the Second World War.  Unlike his namesake, Sidney Lewis survived his war experiences and was awarded a Victory Medal in 1920, by which time the teenager had attained the rank of Lance Sergeant (having re-enlisted in 1918).  When, in later years, he told his son Colin that he had fought on the Somme, Colin simply did not believe him; this must have been rather galling after the lengths he had gone to in order to enlist.

This may be rather a controversial statement, but it strikes me that war relies for its continuation on the fearlessness and inexperience of very young men.  When I asked my late uncle about his feelings on hearing of the declaration of war in 1939, a few weeks after he had joined the embryonic Fleet Air Arm at the age of fifteen, he said "we felt exhilarated, we weren't scared at all".  He was even luckier than Sidney Lewis, since he spent most of the war repairing aeroplanes in India, but he was not to know this at the time; if he had been able to foresee the form his military experience would take, the fifteen-year-old in him might have been disappointed.

In more recent years we have witnessed the horrific sight of children in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and other African countries being armed with rifles and trained to go into battle,  and the use of conscripted children by the Khmer Rouge in the Far East is legendary.  These children are forced into fighting; they may feel fear but it makes no difference to those who would use them for their own ends.  This is, of course, different from the military use of children by most of the countries who participated in the Second World War.  Jewish children participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, Yugoslav children formed a "Partisan Artillery", and in the UK the minimum age for Home Guard participation was lowered to sixteen in 1942.  The Germans formed an entire SS Panzer Tank Division from teenage members of the Hitler Youth. 

Today we have a more tender view of young people.  We believe in nurturing and protecting them.  Yet the minimum age for joining the British army is still sixteen; Christian and pacifist groups have recently been campaigning to have it raised to eighteen, so far without success.  Among their number are ex-soldiers, one of whom commented: "You're still a child.  At eighteen, you're going through massive life changes."

War can, as Siegfried Sassoon saw, make one grow up very quickly.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Friendship Continued

A correspondent recently contacted me about a painting by Gabriel Atkin that includes an idealised nude male figure.  It was very intriguing to consider whether Atkin had in fact based the figure on Siegfried Sassoon; the physical resemblance was superficial, but the possibility remains that Atkin admired his lover’s physique enough to want to paint him.  It is well-attested that Gabriel Atkin (1897-1937) provided Sassoon with his first sexual experience, in November 1918, just after the war had ended.  The relationship did not last long, and the two men seem to have had little to do with one another in later years; they did not form the same kind of warm friendship as Sassoon later did, for  example, with Glen Byam Shaw.  Siegfried did, however, support Atkin financially, enough to enable him to continue with his artistic career.  In the late 1920s, Atkin got married, but he and his wife were both addicts and died tragically young.

Financial assistance seems to have played a large part in many of Siegfried’s post-war friendships.  Although he was never wealthy, did not make a substantial income from his writing, and was only able to afford to purchase Heytesbury House in Wiltshire in 1934 because of a long-awaited legacy from his paternal aunt, Rachel Beer, he was generous with his funds.  Others who benefited from his largesse included the poet Robert Graves, Sassoon's former army batman John Law, and the composer William Walton (who was still in his teens when he first met Sassoon and who later dedicated his “Portsmouth Point” overture to his benefactor).

Of those to whom he made generous loans, few can be described as close friends of Sassoon, exceptions being Graves, with whom Siegfried famously fell out in 1928 after the publication of Goodbye to All That, and the lesser writer Walter J Turner.  Sassoon’s patronage of Turner was less direct: he lent his friend money to buy a house in Tufton Street, Westminster, which he then moved into with Turner and his wife Delphine.  I will digress slightly here to comment that, when I read Siegfried’s words about Delphine Turner and about Phyllis Loder, the wife of another of his friends, I have no difficulty in believing that he was bisexual; he clearly admired, and was attracted to, both women immensely and might have married either of them, given the opportunity.  Sadly, Delphine also went out of his life when he decided he had seen enough of her ungrateful and somewhat slovenly husband.  (Turner, for his part, found Siegfried's piano-playing an annoyance, and Siegfried got the message.)

There is clearly a question mark over whether Sassoon was trying to buy friendship, whether he sought gratitude and recognition for his kindness to others.  To my mind, the fact that he kept a list of names and amounts indicates one of two things – he either expected to be paid back at some stage (which, in view of the people he lent money to, seems unlikely) or he was storing up good deeds so as to reassure himself that he was deserving of his own good fortune.  I feel we should not judge this habit too harshly.

Dennis Silk often speaks of the generosity shown by the older Sassoon when entertaining Dennis and his Cambridge cricketing friends in local restaurants.  Siegfried seems to have enjoyed the conviviality such occasions offered, and no doubt he felt that this more than repaid any financial outlay involved.  He used the opportunity to coerce the youths into joining in his favourite parlour game of “Cricketers’ Initials”.  I will not try to tell Dennis’s most famous anecdote about this - Dennis is the only one who can do justice to it.

Another friend who might have needed, but would surely never have sought, financial assistance from Siegfried was Edmund Blunden.  (I was lucky enough to be present when Margi Blunden saw, for the first time, the tiny cottage on Boars Hill where her father had started his married life, and I will never forget how moved she was by the realisation of how the young couple must have struggled.)  Sassoon and Blunden met only after the war, and immediately found they had much in common: their literary tastes, their shared interest in cricket, and, perhaps most significantly, their feelings about the war.  Sassoon referred to “little Blunden” in the same kindly way he had formerly referred to “little Owen”, though it would be fanciful to suggest that Blunden in any way replaced Owen in Sassoon's affections; these were two very different friendships.

Blunden's first letter to Sassoon, written in 1919 in appreciation of the latter's work as literary editor of the Daily Herald, was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted until Siegfried's death, and the results are now available to enthusiasts in the form of Selected Letters of Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, 1919-1967, edited by Carol Z Rothkopf and published by Pickering & Chatto in 2012.  The three-volume set, although beyond the budget of most individuals at £275 (there is a hefty discount available for SSF members), is the kind of thing any self-respecting library ought to try to acquire - and you can help them make up their minds about this by requesting it as many times as you need to!  Both men were accomplished letter-writers and the result is as entertaining as it is interesting.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Siegfried's Friends

I promised a while ago to say something about Siegfried Sassoon's friendships.  I suppose I have been putting it off because there are just so many of them that it's a daunting task.  Dennis Silk, speaking on the subject at an SSF annual conference in Marlborough a few years ago, was unable to squeeze all his material into the time available, whilst Philip Stewart, who took us on that wonderful literary tour of Boar's Hill, referred to Sassoon as not only being at the centre of a vast web of acquaintances but being a person that everyone liked.  It is as though, for all his faults, people were drawn to him.  We do not get a strong sense of this from his work; it seems to me that he is always on the outside looking in, admiring people like Norman Loder and Rupert Brooke from afar, never thinking of himself as an object of admiration or (in the case of Lady Ottoline Morrell, to name but one) desire.

I can only hope to scratch the surface in this blog, so I will concentrate on those who come most immediately to mind, rather than trying to assess their relative importance in Sassoon's life.  To begin at the beginning, we know little of his childhood friends.  He was, after all, kept away from children of his own age in his early years by being taught at home.  He seems not to have been very close to his older brother Michael, but to have had a more confiding relationship with his younger brother Hamo.  There were substitute father figures - Tom Richardson the groom, for one.  Yet in the pre-war days no one friend seems to stand out strongly, although Siegfried clearly had great affection for Loder, Bobbie Hanmer, and Gordon Harbord, all friends who shared his love of sport.

The war brought Sassoon into contact with others of his age group, and he quickly found a kindred spirit in Robert Graves.  Graves' own account of their first meeting describes how he sought out Sassoon as the owner of a volume of Lionel Johnson's essays he had spotted lying around.  Siegfried himself recorded his first impression of Graves as "an interesting creature" and "a defier of convention"; bearing in mind Graves' later career, the latter description reveals considerable insight on Sassoon's part.  Graves became heavily involved in Sassoon's case when the latter made his "Soldier's Declaration" in the summer of 1917, and some believe he was instrumental in preventing a court-martial.

In my most recent post, I wrote about Siegfried’s association with Lady Ottoline Morrell and how it influenced his own life, both directly and indirectly.  It was through her that he met people like Bertrand Russell and John Middleton Murry, who would be keen to see him make his outspoken protest against the war.  These were not friends as such; Siegfried deferred to them in the same way he would have done to anyone he considered more learned than himself, and, in this respect, he was very unsure of himself. Nevertheless, after the war, when he no longer wished to think about his recent past, he remained friendly with Lady Ottoline.  Neil Brand, in his play "Between the Lines", interprets their relationship in a touching scene that will be clearly recollected by anyone who has heard or seen it performed.  The dialogue between them is the dramatist's invention, but it is completely believable.

Other, older,  friends also disapproved of Sassoon's protest.  Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde’s former lover and literary executor, was one such.  Ross, a Canadian by birth and a prominent art critic, had first met Siegfried before the war and had been a kind of mentor to him, one of several older men Sassoon seems to have seen as substitute fathers (another being Edmund Gosse, who had given him advice and encouragement in his early poetic career).  He was angry when he heard about the “Soldier’s Declaration”, feeling that Siegfried had been led by malign influences to put himself in danger.  Yet Ross himself was in serious potential trouble because of his homosexual activities, and the stress of this must surely have contributed to his sudden death, aged only 49, just before the war ended.  It was a major blow to Siegfried as well as to Ross’s many other friends, who included Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, both of whom had been brought within Ross's circle by Sassoon.

The friend who perhaps influenced Sassoon most strongly at this period, and whose presence helped him to get over the deaths of Ross and Owen, was the psychiatrist William Rivers, who had treated him at Craiglockhart.   I recently came across this passage in Sassoon’s memoirs.

“In the daytime, sitting in a sunny room, a man could discuss his psycho-neurotic symptoms with his doctor, who could diagnose phobias and conflicts and formulate them into scientific terminology. Significant dreams could be noted down, and Rivers could try to remove repressions. But by night each man was back in his doomed sector of horrorstricken Front Line, where the panic and stampede of some ghastly experience was re-enacted among the livid faces of the dead.”

This gives us a clue as to the true value of Rivers’ presence in Sassoon’s life.  It was ironic that he, like Ross, should die suddenly – in Rivers’ case, at the age of 58 – leaving Sassoon with strong feelings of bereavement.  Other friends appeared to fill the void, one of the most notable being T E Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), who shared much with Sassoon.  By the time Lawrence, too, was taken from him suddenly, Sassoon had married Hester Gatty and was moving into a new phase of life, finally becoming a father, a role to which he had aspired for many years. 

The friendship that interests me most, naturally, is the one Sassoon shared with our SSF President, Dennis Silk, who has often told the humorous tale of his first meeting with Siegfried in 1953 (engineered by Sassoon's other great post-war friend, the poet Edmund Blunden).  Dennis, in his usual self-deprecatory way, refers to himself as “the idiot boy” to whom Siegfried could confide his feelings about the past without feeling judged or threatened.  And it is Dennis, more than anyone, who has been responsible for the existence of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship – simply because anyone who hears the affection with which he talks about his friend “Sig” cannot fail to want to hear more and to find in themselves an increased admiration for the man as well as the poet.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Time on his hands

Our Chair will shortly be going into hospital for an orthopaedic operation, and will afterwards be under several weeks “house arrest” as a result of being forbidden to drive until fully recovered.  Such periods of enforced physical inactivity can cause depression and a feeling of worthlessness, as anyone who is out of work will know.   Siegfried Sassoon found this when he was confined to “Dottyville” (Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh), where he was being “treated” during the summer of 1917.  As an outwardly healthy man, used to physical exertion, it grieved him to have to get his exercise from a daily round of golf while his former companions were still enduring shell-fire at the Western Front; this, of course, is why he eventually insisted on going to rejoin them.  In the intervening period, however, he had discovered and mentored a young man who would become the iconic poet of the First World War; I refer of course to Wilfred Owen.  It cannot therefore be said that Sassoon’s stay at Craiglockhart was a complete waste of time!

A period of enforced leisure, even if confined to the house or to bed, can, however, be fruitful in many ways, provided that one’s mind is active.  Our Chair will have little difficulty finding something to do with her time while she is unable to go out to work.  For a start, there is our SSF Journal, which she edits.  Looking back over past issues of Siegfried’s Journal, I am always struck by the sheer variety of content, something few literary societies’ journals and newsletters can equal.   In recent editions we’ve had poetry (both original and “vintage”), reviews of books, films and theatre, memoirs, extracts from a previously unpublished thesis, genealogical research, humour, photographs – actually it would be easier to list what we haven’t had.

So there will be no shortage of “stuff to do” for our Chair.  Siegfried Sassoon had previously found how rewarding enforced leisure time can be when, having being taken ill after "eight days in hell" during July 1916, he was unexpectedly shipped back to Britain to recuperate at Oxford.  Physically he was already much recovered, but a sympathetic medical officer had  (or so Sassoon himself thought) been influenced by his recent service record and winning of the Military Cross and recommended he be sent home for a period. Living in female student accommodation at Somerville College - temporarily requisitioned as a military hospital - he used his time profitably, not only writing new poetry, but making new friendships which were to be highly influential in his future career.  The most notable of these acquaintances was Lady Ottoline Morrell, to whom he was introduced by Robbie Ross.

Lady Ottoline, though her personal interest in Sassoon led to a unilateral romantic attachment, would prove a significant figure in his life and career, whether for good or ill.  She encouraged him as a poet, of course, but he was only one of many up-and-coming writers who would profit by her generosity and protection: Aldous Huxley and D H Lawrence were among her other protégés (few of whom showed the same gratitude as Sassoon did).  In the following year, when he was again sent home, this time with a shoulder wound, it was the influence of the Morrells' circle that led to his one-man protest against the continuation of the war for, as he felt, political reasons.  Many of his friends disapproved of his action, and yet it was perhaps the one thing in his life for which he is now most admired.  From this period come many of his most remarkable war poems, following hot on the heels of his major collection, The Old Huntsman.

Sassoon would once again be forcibly removed from the battlefield in 1918 when, accidentally shot in the head by one of his own men, he was forced to retire permanently from military action and could spend time in London with old friends; these included “little Owen”.  On 17 August, the two men spent a glorious afternoon together, at Osbert Sitwell’s London home and at the Chelsea Physic Garden close by.  Sadly, they would never meet again in life, as Owen (much to his friend's dismay) returned to the Front, where he was killed less than three months later.

Apart from intellectual and social activity of the obvious kind, time spent in such circumstances gives the opportunity for reflection, and this is something Sassoon also profited by, turning out some of his best poetry when he had the time to think about it without the distractions of shell-fire and the daily duties of an officer.  Even after the war was over, he would need time and leisure to allow his most polished work to ferment in his mind until ready to be transferred to the printed page.  Seldom, in his later life, would he need to worry about returning to the daily grind; this proved both a blessing and a curse, as he would never have the subject matter that the experiences of military service had brought him.  He would, however, have time to look back over his early life, and the result was the wonderful Sherston trilogy, which brought him a wider readership and even greater recognition.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

It's A Mystery!

I hear that next year's annual Crime & Mystery Conference at Oxford will recognise the centenary of the outbreak of World War I by taking as its theme "War in Crime Fiction".  I wish them luck with this.  War is a tricky subject, one that can be so painful to read about that the addition of a crime, particularly a murder, to the mix would seem like overkill (if you'll forgive the unintentional pun).

Writers of today are far enough away from the events of the Great War in temporal terms to be able to distance themselves from its events just long enough to attempt the feat.  Two that I can think of, off the top of my head, are Ben Elton and Carola Dunn.  I read Elton's The First Casualty some years ago, and reviewed it for Siegfried's Journal.  It was in many ways an enjoyable read, but the author seemed to be so busy trying to give his readers a history lesson (and simultaneously trying to please female readers by throwing in a bit of romance) that he clean forgot to write the convincing murder mystery he had presumably intended.  Those who picked it up because they were fans of his comedy act must have been extremely disappointed.  Still, it was a valiant attempt.

Carola Dunn's Anthem for Doomed Youth was about as different as it could be.  Capitalising on the title of a Wilfred Owen poem without ever actually mentioning any World War I poetry, it is (as I said in my review for the WOA Journal) a superficial story with entertaining moments.  Unlike Elton's novel, it is not set during the war, but a few years later; events that took place during the war link the suspects and give away most of the plot before it has been enacted.  Once again, it is not very successful as a whodunnit.

A series of mystery novels by a present-day writer that have been given a better reception are Anne Perry's series of five books set in World War I, No Graves As Yet (2003) and its successors, featuring mild-mannered academic Joseph Reavley, a character based on Perry's own grandfather, who himself served in the trenches.  I have to confess I have not read any of these myself and therefore can neither recommend nor warn you off them.  If you are intrigued enough to pick one up, you will judge for yourselves.

Go back further in time, and you find that there were indeed crime writers, during and immediately after the Great War, who used it as a theme in their work.  Their books, popular at the time, have mostly faded into obscurity.  W F Morris, a Norfolk schoolmaster and former middle-ranking army officer, obtained some success with accomplished mystery novels such as Bretherton (1929) and Behind the Lines (1930), but his works are out of print today.

Interestingly, Dorothy L Sayers' famous detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, wins over his audience by his humanity, revealed in part through his war experience.  A major in the Rifle Brigade, Lord Peter suffers from nightmares and flashbacks as a result of the traumatic events he witnessed, and his servant Bunter (formerly his batman) has the job of picking up the pieces.  The war does not play a direct role in the crimes and mysteries solved by Lord Peter, but it is an important aspect of the back story.  Sayers' own husband, Oswald Arthur Fleming, was disabled as a result of his war service; but, by the time she married, she had already created Wimsey in the image of her perfect man.

John Buchan's celebrated adventure story, The Thirty-Nine Steps, certainly involves crime and mystery, although it would be inaccurate to call it a crime novel.  Published in 1915, it came too early to deal with the unpleasant truths that the war would bring home, and limits itself to suggesting that Richard Hannay, by unveiling the spy ring and thwarting their plot, has reduced the danger of Britain's defeat in the forthcoming conflict.  In later works, Hannay goes on to become an army officer, and is wounded at the Battle of Loos just before the events of Greenmantle. By the time he stars in Mr Standfast, he has reached the rank of Brigadier-General.  Conscientious objectors and shell shock play a role in this last Hannay outing.  There is, by this time, no doubt that his creator understands the implications of war; Buchan's brother Alastair, a lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, was killed in 1917.

If you would like to find out more about the C&MC conference "experience", you can read about it in somebody else's blog!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

An Embarrassment of Riches

The title expresses my feelings as I look forward to the events of the next year.  As if it were not enough to have enjoyed such a successful annual conference earlier this month, we are already building up to the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, with so many treats in store.

The next major event for many of us who are members of several war poets' societies is the AGM of the Wilfred Owen Association, which takes place on 2nd November at St Anne's College, Oxford, and is combined with a Dominic Hibberd memorial event, with readings by several WOA members who were involved in the 2007 programme based on Dr Hibberd's celebrated "Winter of the World" anthology; the latter will form the basis for our own centenary event at Heytesbury next August, about which you will already have heard if you receive Siegfried's Journal or look at the SSF website.

Dominic Hibberd (3 November 1941 - 12 August 2012) was a noted academic, writer and broadcaster and the biographer of both Wilfred Owen and Harold Monro.  It is the words of these two poets that will be read at the memorial event.  Dr Hibberd had been closely involved in the work of the WOA for many years and has been much missed since he was gripped by a neurogenerative disorder that caused his withdrawal from public appearances and put an end to his creative contributions.  

For myself, I only met Dr Hibberd a handful of times, the first occasion being at the famous "Sassoon Day" in Marlborough as a result of which the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship came into being.  Those who were there will recall that he slipped and fell on some steps at Marlborough College and had to receive medical treatment before he was able to give his talk; he told me, some years later, that he still did not feel fully recovered.  He never became a member of the SSF, but it is clear from the response of WOA members to his death that he was a much-loved and valued member of their community.  

Dominic Hibberd is one of so many distinguished speakers and writers I've had the privilege to hear and meet over the years since we set up the SSF, and I know that there are many more such "discoveries" to come - as there are in store for those of you who have been unable to attend our events so far.  A poet I had never heard of until I became interested in First World War writing (which is less than 15 years ago) is Isaac Rosenberg, whom many regard as one of the most gifted of his generation.  On 9th November at the Imperial War Museum, our patron Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson will show off another of the many strings on her bow by hosting an event about Rosenberg, at which she will once again take the stage with another of our patrons, Max Egremont.  Those who have attended the events Jean has run every November for the past three years will know how enjoyable this promises to be.  Tickets are only £10 and more details are available on the IWM website:

Rosenberg is one of many poets who do not have their own societies to commemorate their life and work, so it is not too often that we get the opportunity to hear about him.  The SSF's collaboration with the Wilfred Owen Association has proved extremely fruitful in recent years, and another joint event is planned for next spring, of which details will be made known as soon as possible.  In the meantime, there are numerous dates in 1914 that you can put in your diaries immediately.  I've already mentioned the Heytesbury event on 2nd August, but July is also jam-packed with interesting happenings, including our annual cricket match (no date as yet) and of course the third in a series of War Poetry tours of the Western Front, jointly organised by the Western Front Association and Battle Honours tours.  Next July will see us back in Ieper (Ypres), which was the base for a very successful SSF tour back in 2010.  (Can it really be three years ago already?)

In the week leading up to our Heytesbury event, there will be two major festivals going on in that part of the country:  The Wylye Valley 1914 group will be putting on an exhibition at Codford Village Hall on the weekend of 26th-27th July (see their website for details: ) and there will be guided walks around the area.  In the meantime, the Thomas Hardy Society is holding its biennial festival in Dorchester from 26th July to 2nd August, and we are hoping to collaborate on an evening event some time during that week.

The icing on the cake, of course, will be the English Association's "British Poetry of the First World War" conference at Wadham College, Oxford, from 5th to 7th September 2014.  The Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship will be hosting a small exhibition and speaker panel and several members of the SSF will be actively involved as panel speakers, not all of us on the subject of Sassoon!

It's all very exciting, and hard work for a lot of people.  I can hardly wait - although, come to think of it, I am going to need quite a bit of time to prepare for all these events, especially the ones that involve the SSF. What I am looking forward to most, however, is what I always look forward to: meeting friends old and new, whilst combining entertainment with a learning experience.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Dead

Not a cheery title for a blog post, I know, but it’s something that’s been on my mind recently, since I heard that the government had recently released wills made by hundreds of ordinary soldiers from Britain and its overseas possessions, who knew their lives were at risk.  The wills are being digitised by Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service and should all be available on-line in time for next year's centenary.  Ironically, the Ministry of Justice only became aware of their existence as a result of a request made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The contents make salutary reading.  Even early in the war, it seems, reality soaked quickly into the psyche of those who had recently arrived on the Western Front and were beginning to see what they had let themselves in for.  Most of them were young men who, under normal circumstances, would not have been thinking about death at all.  Many were unmarried, and left such property as they owned to their mothers, recording their last wishes on simple forms issued for the purpose by far-sighted officialdom.

Some were accompanied by letters to their families, and they make heartbreaking reading, especially when viewed in the soldiers' own handwriting.  "Mother dear, do have courage," wrote 19-year-old Joseph Ditchburn   "I will be all right."  He died two months later; the letter was never delivered.    

"This war is going to be worse than I thought," wrote 26-year-old Harry Lewis-Lincoln, when it dawned on him that it was not going to be all over by Christmas.  Meanwhile, a chaplain wrote to the widow of footballer Albert Butler to tell her that her late husband had commented, on having his leg blown to bits: "No more football for me."

Siegfried Sassoon seems to have felt an affinity with the dead, almost a communion with them, both during the latter part of his own military service and after the war had ended.  “I stood with the dead”, he says, as though to show solidarity with his late comrades.  It is hard to see how anyone who had lost the number of friends, comrades and acquaintances Sassoon had lost in the course of the war could feel otherwise.  For him, at that stage, they were still living, breathing men whose faces and voices were fresh in his mind.

“To any dead officer” he addresses the words, "Cheero.  I wish they'd killed you in a decent show."  Thus the blackest humour links military incompetence with death, in a manner typical of his war poetry.

William Rivers, who treated Sassoon at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in 1917, later included him, anonymously, as an example in a study he wrote on Conflict and Dream.  Sassoon's main symptoms, in medical terms, were the nightmares and hallucinations he suffered, an effect common among soldiers suffering from "neurosis".  Sassoon's dreams featured the dead in no uncertain manner.  Rivers diagnosed this as a "repression of war experience" and Sassoon felt that talking it through with the psychiatrist helped him enormously.  He subsequently wrote about his feelings in poems like "Survivors", in which he speaks of "haunted nights" and "the ghosts of friends".  He knew he was not alone in being obsessed with the dead, and his ability to get his feelings out in the open using the written word was cathartic as well as resulting in great poetry.

The BBC's recent (and excellent) production, The Wipers Times, a dramatised rendition of the history of the troops’ magazine edited by Captain Fred Roberts from 1916 to 1918, avoided overt references to death, and that was the whole point.  Everyone in the trenches knew their days were numbered; few had any confidence in their survival.  They soldiered on, literally, making life bearable by joking about death.  Poets too were mocked: "An insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry. Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other, absently walking near the wire in deep communication with their muse."  The writer couldn't possibly have seen Sassoon in action - could he?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

"Is there anything left that can go wrong?"

I realised, when I took up blogging on behalf of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, that there would be times when I was unable to keep to my schedule because of other commitments.  None of the hoped-for guest posts have turned up as yet to help me out, so I just had to take a break when I had two literary conferences to help organise on successive weekends.  There is almost nothing more time-consuming than trying to organise a literary conference, and this year's SSF annual conference has been no exception.  What's more, the SSF conference follows hot on the heels of the Barbara Pym Society's annual conference.  This year is the Pym centenary, so for two weekends in a row I was very tied up with organising events.  People keep telling me how tired I look.  Fortunately, they usually tell me, in the same breath, how much they have enjoyed themselves, and this just makes it all worth while.

Difficulties can often be anticipated and either avoided or mitigated when they do occur.  However, there is always something you just didn't think of or plan for, and these spanners seem to have a habit of throwing themselves into the works just as everything seems to be going really well.  I am never quite sure whether things go wrong because I expect them to go wrong or whether even worse things would happen if I didn't worry about it.  It certainly seems as though the things that go wrong are always the ones you never thought of, the possibilities you didn't even consider.

Take, for example, a boat trip up the River Thames.  You have hired the boat, you have a driver and a person to do the commentary and you have ordered the Pimm's.  You have even, after some coaxing and squashing up, managed to get all fifty people on board.  The engine starts up, the crew cast off, and you're away.

Then the driver says, "Is it actually important for us to get to Godstow?"

"Yes," I reply.  "That's the whole point of the trip."

"Ah," he says.  "There's a bit of a problem."

That's when I discovered that, because of low water levels in parts of the river after all the lovely dry and sunny weather we've been having, a barge had run aground, in the exact spot where we expected to unload our passengers!

Now, we had thought of going to Godstow by bus or car, but had dismissed the idea because we know what the traffic is like in Oxford on a Friday afternoon.  One doesn't expect a traffic jam to occur on the river.  Luckily, the passengers were so enchanted by the experience of drifting up the river on a sunny day, looking at the meadows on either bank and being told about the river's literary connections (especially "Alice in Wonderland"), that only one or two were dissatisfied with the trip, even though we never actually arrived at our intended destination.

Usually, members, particularly long-standing members, can be relied on to appreciate everything their organisers try to do to make events enjoyable, and rarely rebel.  The British tend to live up to their reputation for not complaining, or at least not complaining publicly.  In fact, we rather like it when things go wrong, provided that no one is hurt or upset, because it gives us amusing anecdotes to tell in later years.  "Do you remember the time when...?"  We seldom reminisce about the times when everything went like clockwork. Rather, we remember the time so-and-so dozed off during a lecture and fell off his chair, or when a bus broke down or someone got lost - you know the kind of thing.

This year's SSF conference was not short of such little incidents, but the one that caused the most hilarity (after the event, of course) was what happened at the beginning of the afternoon speaker sessions, when our President, Dennis Silk, and Chair, Meg Crane, were both trapped in a disabled lift in a conference room at Cardiff University. They didn't come to any harm, I hasten to add. They were, in fact, able to continue to participate in the conference despite their incarceration.  While awaiting the arrival of an engineer, chairs were passed into the lift to enable them to sit down, and they could see and hear everything that was going on at the front of the room.  Nevertheless, when the engineer arrived and rashly suggested they should "try to climb out", our Chair soon put him straight!

I won't continue.  Members of literary societies are prepared to make light of such little mishaps and, if one is lucky, they return to base saying what a wonderful time they have had.  By the end of the river trip, only a handful of Pym members even remembered that they were supposed to be going to Godstow. Likewise, after the SSF trip to St Fagan's, no one even seemed to notice that the minibus driver hadn't a clue where he was going. The organiser, however, remained mortified.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Sassoon's Travels

Someone recently asked me why the SSF is holding this year’s annual conference in Cardiff.  I found this question slightly puzzling.  Our previous conferences have been held in lots of different places: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Matfield, Marlborough, Stratford-upon Avon.  I suppose the reasoning behind the question is that most of the other places we have been (though not last year’s venue, Radley College) have had a fairly close association with the events of Siegfried Sassoon’s life, and Cardiff has no obvious link.  However, I think it should be recognised that Sassoon (despite a propensity for staying at home and enjoying his privacy) was both very sociable and very widely-travelled, more so than most men of his generation.

He did of course visit Cardiff.  In the course of his road trips in the early 1920s, there was scarcely any part of the UK that he did not visit.  As a soldier, he had been on active service in France, Belgium and Palestine and had temporarily been lodged in various military camps and hospitals in towns ranging from Lewes to Liverpool, from Edinburgh to Limerick.   After the war, he enjoyed visiting Europe despite the ravages left behind by the recent conflict in some areas; he dallied with a German prince in Rome, visited the South of France with a wealthy patron, went to Sicily with Stephen Tennant and to Switzerland with the composer William Walton.  Perhaps this eagerness to travel is one of the reasons for the many friendships he established with eminent people all over the world, of which I intend to say more in a future post.

Let us restrict ourselves to Sassoon’s travels for the time being.  In April 1921, Sassoon was in South Wales as a "correspondent" for The Nation, and visited industrial towns such as Neath and Llanelli (where he bought two large bananas and went for a walk) before arriving in Cardiff on 13 April.  He found the city "depressing" and went to bed before dinner, commenting wryly in his diary "What a vivid account I am writing".  He did, however, enjoy viewing Dante Gabriel Rossetti's altarpiece in Llandaff Cathedral in his few moments of leisure.  From there he went to Merthyr to see for himself the effects of the miners' strike.

David Gray, in his bibliography at, lays out the itinerary of one of Sassoon’s 1924 road trips, which lasted for a fortnight in September.  Earlier in the summer, he had been in Wales visiting his poet friend Walter de la Mare at Manorbier in Pembrokeshire.  Siegfried's diaries often record which hotels he stayed in, and these included the Royal at Ross-on-Wye, the Globe at King's Lynn and the Lamb at Ely.  Of the whole list, only one - "The Hotel" at Church Stretton - is no longer a hotel.  So there is plenty of opportunity to walk in Siegfried's footsteps or even sleep in a room where he once slept, if you are prepared to do the research.

A member of the SSF committee did in fact locate the very room Siegfried slept in when he was a convalescent patient at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1917.  It was temporarily occupied at the time by an overseas student on a summer course, who was delighted to learn that the room had been previously used by "a famous English poet".  We also located the rooms in Merton Street, personally selected by Lady Ottoline Morrell for Siegfried when he returned to Oxford after the war to pursue a "course of independent study"; he ended up spending most of his time visiting other literary acquaintances such as John Masefield and Robert Bridges, on "Parnassus" (as Boars Hill had become known).  The latter was the location for one of the most memorable SSF excursions of all time, back in 2008.

Perhaps one of Sassoon's most memorable journeys, and the one that forms a major part of such "action" as there is in one of his last books, Siegfried's Journey (1946), was the lecture tour of the United States, on which he embarked shortly after the First World War.  In addition to earning him over $2000, it opened his eyes to a way of life so different from his past experience that he found it almost overwhelming at first.  (On arrival in New York, he admitted to finding the city "depressing" - so perhaps Cardiff was not so bad after all.)

By the time he wrote Siegfried's Journey, Sassoon was at another emotional low point.  Now in his sixties and separated from his wife, he did little travelling after that date (although he never ceased to drive with panache, frightening the wits out of new friends like Dennis Silk).  His visits were now restricted to places like Cambridge, where his son George was an undergraduate in the 1950s, and Stratford, where he went to see plays produced by his old friend Glen Byam Shaw, who had become director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1952.

I could go on - but what, I hope, stands out from this short summary of Sassoon's travels is the enormous scope it gives the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship for future events and conference venues.  As a literary society, we are at a disadvantage in not having a "base", in the form of a house or museum open to the public where we could hold events.  On the other hand, moving from one location to another and still managing to find Sassoon connections is a wonderful way of bringing his life and work to the notice of people around the country, and indeed the world.  It also makes it possible to meet a large proportion of our membership; if you can't make it to one of our events because of the distance or difficulty of travel, do not despair: we are almost certain to be in your area, sooner or later.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Return to Heytesbury

I think it is time to start talking about our intentions for 2014.  Last year the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship was invited to participate in an event in Heytesbury, Wiltshire (the village where Siegfried Sassoon spent the last 33 years of his life), which was being planned by local people to commemorate the start of the First World War.  Naturally we agreed immediately, and arrangements for this event are now beginning in earnest.

Siegfried and his new wife, Hester, moved into Heytesbury House in 1934; he could afford to buy it only because of a legacy from his aunt, the fabulously wealthy Rachel Beer, who had died in 1927 after a lingering illness.  He loved the village, and remained there after his marriage broke up.  Its proximity to Downside Abbey and to Mells, the home of the Asquiths, was an additional attraction that greatly affected his social activities during the latter years of his life.  Siegfried's pastimes while he was there included playing cricket with the monks of Downside.  During the Second World War, however, much of the residential accommodation was given over to American soldiers.

It was at Heytesbury that Siegfried Sassoon died, and he left the house to his son George, who eventually and reluctantly sold it, unable to afford the upkeep of such an enormous property.  Our President, Dennis Silk, visited Siegfried at Heytesbury many times and has fond memories of the house, as does Dom Sebastian Moore of nearby Downside Abbey, who instructed the poet in the Catholic faith in the late 1950s. Another of the monks, Dom Philip Jebb (coincidentally the grandson of Hilaire Belloc), was one of the last people to see Siegfried and officiated at his funeral.

After some years of near-dereliction as the result of a fire in the late 1980s, the house was converted into the lovely apartments that can be seen today.  Although not open to the public, it has been well cared-for, but Siegfried would have found it disconcerting to see the amount of additional building that has taken up much of the original estate.  The house is, sadly, separated from the main part of the village by the A36 trunk road, which cuts through the surrounding countryside at this point.

The parish church of St Peter and St Paul is a medieval building with substantial 19th century alterations. Although it has undergone some restoration, it is costly to maintain, and the local community hopes to raise money for its upkeep as a result of the poetry reading planned for 2 August 2014, in which the SSF hopes to play a very active role.  In fact, we are in the process of devising a programme of readings and negotiating with a list of potential readers and actors who will be performing it.

Siegfried was not, of course, at Heytesbury when he enlisted in the army at the beginning of August 2014. He travelled to Sussex's county town of Lewes to join up, becoming a Trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry, a role in which he was never called up for active service.  Although we cannot be in two places at once, it is our hope that the event at Heytesbury will directly reflect his experiences as well as exposing the audience to some of the lesser-known poetry of the First World War as well as some of the best-known.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Country Boys

While on holiday in the Orkneys recently, I visited the grave of Harry Reid, a private in the Seaforth Highlanders, who died in 1917 at his home at Melsetter on the island of Hoy and is buried on the smaller island of Rousay, next to his mother, who died shortly after his birth.  Assuming he had been wounded at Arras or in some contemporary action and brought home to die, I found the weathered stone a poignant sight but thought little more about it until my attention was drawn to the fact that Harry had never served overseas.

This got me wondering and I looked up his name in a list of Orkney’s World War I dead, suspecting what I might find.  I was not altogether surprised to learn that 23-year-old Harry had died of measles.  It may sound very odd but let us put this death into context.  In the early decades of the twentieth century, there were still many remote communities in Britain, and indeed throughout Europe, where a person might live his or her entire life without ever venturing as far as the nearest city.   The types of transport with which we have become familiar today, even if they existed, were beyond most people’s reach. 

Country folk did not have any great need to travel, particularly if they lived in agricultural communities, because they were self-sufficient to a far greater degree than almost anyone is now.  Although there were food shortages during World War I and food rationing was introduced in February 1918, the problem was mostly imported items such as tea and sugar, which might be regarded as luxuries.  Rural communities had their own sources of meat, vegetables and dairy products.

Death from infectious diseases has traditionally been a common problem in wartime, but (if you are anything like me) your thoughts will immediately be drawn to Henry V's army dying from dysentery and starvation rather than to the events of the twentieth century.  Despite the improvements in medical treatment since the Napoleonic Wars, death from disease still accounted for one third of military deaths in World War I.  Among those we can count men like Rupert Brooke, who had foreseen a hero’s death for himself but actually died of an infected mosquito bite before even arriving in a theatre of war. 

More tragic, somehow, are those young men who came from places like the Highlands and islands of Scotland, the valleys of North Wales, the west of Ireland, and parts of France, Italy, Russia and even Germany where infections such as measles were almost unknown.  "Measles," says an American expert, "was essentially the disease of country boys coming for the first time into a densely crowded environment." Many recruits from the Southern United States, just like Harry Reid, died without ever being shipped overseas to fight the enemy.  For some reason, the disease was more likely to hit white US soldiers than their black fellow-countrymen.

Measles was a killer not so much because of the properties of the disease itself as because of the complications that often accompanied it.  Harry Reid contracted pneumonia, a common side effect.  The crew of an Australian cruiser stationed in the North Sea in 1915 suffered from outbreaks of measles and influenza, which were not easily eradicated in such cramped conditions. Troops of all nationalities in Macedonia, meanwhile, went down with malaria: a French general, when ordered to attack, is reputed to have declined with the explanation "My army is in hospital with malaria". 

Typhus, a very serious disease in its own right, broke out among soldiers on the eastern front early in the war, killing large numbers of soldiers and civilians alike.  Sexually-transmitted diseases were a different kind of hazard.  Robert Graves reports in his memoirs, rather callously, the suffering of strictly-brought-up Welsh soldiers in his battalion who had never been away from home before and realised too late the risk they were taking by visiting brothels.

Siegfried Sassoon, like so many of his fellow-soldiers, went down with trench fever on more than one occasion.  This rather mysteriously-named disease was carried by lice and characterised by a fever lasting about a week and accompanied by rashes and general aches and pains.  Although it claimed many victims, it was seldom fatal; it was, however, just like measles, the result of large numbers of men in close proximity, enabling the lice to breed and spread.  When Isaac Rosenberg wrote his famous poem "Louse Hunting", he described an activity that may sound light-hearted and even playful; in actual fact, these men were doing what they could to preserve their own health in the face of a threat to their well-being that was almost as great as the German guns.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The General and the Lieutenants

“For they were only your fathers,” wrote Ewart Alan Mackintosh in 1916, addressing the troops slaughtered in a raid on Arras that he had personally led, “but I was your officer”.  The message in Mackintosh’s touching poem “In Memoriam” is that he considered himself responsible for ensuring his men’s safety and therefore suffered as much as their families did when he failed in this task.  Although only 23 and a temporary lieutenant, he regarded himself as standing in loco parentis, a father figure to those he led into battle.  The officer himself was killed in action the following year.

Mackintosh had done his best to save the life of the mortally-wounded young soldier, David Sutherland, whose death inspired the poem.   Despite his best efforts, the boy's body went missing, and, instead of a grave, Sutherland's name appears on the Arras Memorial, where I saw it last Sunday afternoon, in the course of another very enjoyable poetry tour organised by the Western Front Association.  Since then, I have been reflecting on what I heard, saw and learned, and feel I am beginning to understand a side of Siegfried Sassoon that I had previously not considered.

Like Siegfried Sassoon, the Scotsman Mackintosh was a product of the English public school system, though St Paul’s School was a very different place from Marlborough College.  Different again were Uppingham and Chigwell, the schools attended by Roland Leighton and his famous circle of friends, immortalised in the memoirs of Leighton’s fiancée, Vera Brittain.  Most of these schools had a common ethos, holding patriotism, loyalty and courage in the greatest regard.  Along with this went a sense of responsibility to one’s inferiors as well as respect for one’s superiors.  Leighton and his friends Victor Richardson and Edward Brittain were known as “The Three Musketeers” even before they left school, and these solid boyhood relationships were of a kind that could be built on to form the links that bound the British armed forces together.

Some schools, like Uppingham, included military training corps among their extra-mural activities, and they were the breeding-ground for a large proportion of the young officers commissioned early in the First World War.  Robert Graves, educated at Charterhouse, was, like many of his contemporaries, forced to cut short his academic career before taking up his place at Oxford and reached the rank of Captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the age of twenty.  Charles Sorley, like Sassoon an Old Marlburian, whose sense of honour was so strongly-developed that he is said to have volunteered for punishment when he broke school rules, enjoyed the briefest of university careers and, also a captain, was barely twenty when killed at the Battle of Loos.  Edward Brittain, Vera's brother, felt that it was his duty to go to war, and took unkindly to his father's efforts to prevent him signing up, going so far as to suggest that Brittain senior's failure to attend public school was an important factor in his pacifism.  There was certainly some priggishness involved in Edward's reaction.

The responsibility of officers towards their men did not stop with lieutenants and captains, but continued up the chain of command.  If the junior officers considered themselves honour-bound to protect the common soldiers, they also had certain expectations of their superiors.  This fact may be a key to the understanding of Sassoon’s outburst against “The General”.

Sassoon, however, was not typical of the junior officer class.  This, too, may be a key to understanding his actions, particularly the Soldier’s Declaration of 1917 and the one-man mutiny that resulted in his being exiled to Craiglockhart Military Hospital to have his war “neurosis” cured by pioneering psychiatrists.  Educated at home until the age of 13, he was never fully imbued with the public school cast of mind, which may go some way towards explaining the brevity of his Cambridge career.  By the time he enlisted in 1914, he was nearly 28 years old.  Instead of seeking a commission, he defied convention by entering the Sussex Yeomanry as an ordinary trooper.  It was partly a practical decision; he did not wish to see his beloved hunting horse commandeered, and the only way to avoid this was to take Cockbird with him into a cavalry regiment; but the regular cavalry was an expensive place to be.  The decision to enlist as a trooper, however, revealed how little he understood of military life.  Believing himself unfit to be an officer, he imagined he would find comradeship amongst the ranks, but he soon realised that he was something of a misfit there. Nevertheless, the time he spent in the company of ordinary soldiers must have given him an edge later, when it came to understanding their mentality.

Admittedly the 28-year-old Sassoon was not a particularly mature young man for his age.  He had been cosseted by his mother and encouraged to live at home on an unearned income, spending his substantial leisure time on activities such as riding, cricket, and (from a very early age) writing poetry.  Life as a junior officer on the Western Front came as a huge shock to his system, but he seems to have adapted with alacrity.  He wanted to have someone to care for, something to take responsibility for, and the members of his platoon fulfilled that long-dormant emotional need.  It is hardly any wonder, then, that he saw red when he realised that those further up the line of command were not demonstrating the same sense of parental responsibility that he and his fellow lieutenants felt so strongly.  He was appalled when a senior commander insisted on a colonel dismounting in order to salute, and he was even more irritated by the general who came to give the troops a pep talk, ironically only revealing how out of touch he was with their situation.

Up until now, Siegfried had been a conventional young man, with no inherent tendency to defy authority.  Sassoon the rebel was born when, three years into the war and aged 30, he participated in the Battle of Arras  He had already lost numerous friends in action, notably his beloved David Thomas, but now he was beginning to feel he had a duty to do something about it.  Buoyed up by the publication of his first major collection, The Old Huntsman, and egged on by the socialist circle of Lady Ottoline Morrell, he took the action that made him notorious.  Futile and foolhardy as others may have felt his gesture to be, he summoned up the strength of character to make it, unfettered by the pseudo-military discipline that had been inculcated in so many British schoolboys over the previous century or so.

"The Lost Generation", as they are often referred to, were certainly the men who would have led Britain into the post-war world.  Leighton, Sorley, Grenfell, Brooke and company were the brightest and best of young men and might have had glittering careers in public service or government.  What was left, after so many of them had given their lives for their country, included the lucky, the lazy, the cowardly and the cunning.  It also included a few men like Sassoon, who retained their individuality and questioned the war, choosing either to stay out of it or to make a stand against it; the latter were few in number.  The Soldier's Declaration makes it quite clear that Sassoon was never a pacifist; his early belief in the justice of Britain's cause had endured. Perhaps surprisingly, he does not aim his criticism at the generals, but at the politicians who, he believed, were deliberately prolonging the war for their own ends, without considering the loss of humanity.  Had not so many illustrious youths been killed, the face of post-war Britain would have been very different - but can we be sure it would have been for the better?

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Of Men, Motivation and Morality

I think I may have to retract some of the things I said in my last post.  Perhaps I was a little too quick to dismiss the value of studying battlefields as a way of getting close to the past.  What I learned on Saturday morning, in a lecture delivered jointly by Chris Skidmore and Professor Glenn Foard at the Chalke Valley History Festival, is that a survey of the terrain on which a battle was fought, when combined with a discussion of the personal history and motivation of the participants, can be quite fascinating.

Of course, I was aware that events in history are usually less straightforward than they appear.  We all know that the human misery brought about by the First World War was not a simple case of stupid, incompetent generals disregarding the outcomes of their strategies, or even of youthful, public-school-educated officers innocently leading fearless working-class Tommies to their deaths.  The combination of circumstances that led to Siegfried Sassoon's protest of 1917 is difficult to unravel, and he recognised, later in life, that he might have been seeing things in black and white when in reality they were varying shades of grey.  Nevertheless, we don't often think too deeply about what was behind the bad decisions of politicians and military leaders, either in the First World War or any other tactical situation.

Skidmore, being an MP, perhaps has a better handle on this than I have, but his analysis of the historical context of the Battle of Bosworth was a masterly one.  A study of the personal histories of the battle commanders leads to some interesting conclusions about why the battle went the way it did.  Whilst it is true that it could have gone either way, and that the death of either Richard III or Henry Tudor would have ended the battle immediately (as in fact it did), there were various individual commanders involved in the action, each of whom had a degree of influence on the outcome.  Richard's final charge towards Henry's personal bodyguard - his only hope, at that stage, of winning the battle - is slightly reminiscent in some ways of Siegfried Sassoon's reckless ventures into No Man's Land and his single-handed but eventually pointless capture of a German trench.

Sassoon, of course, did not have the power to end a battle, or indeed the personal or political influence to end a war, but he was one of many individuals who led the troops, for better or worse.  It would be unreasonable to compare him to the Lancastrian nobleman and experienced battle commander John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, whose leadership on the day of Bosworth played a crucial part in Henry's victory and whose actions on that day were significantly influenced by the mental scars of his previous military experience, or to his opponent John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk, whose death in the battle caused Richard such distress that it proved a turning-point in the hostilities.

More realistic, perhaps, to compare Siegfried with another of Henry's supporters, Sir John Cheney, whose tomb can be seen in Salisbury Cathedral.  Standing approximately six feet eight inches and a notable horseman, Sir John was the knight who dashed in to rescue Henry's standard and put himself between the rivals for the crown during Richard's final charge.  Richard personally unhorsed this seasoned soldier, knocking him unconscious, but Cheney's action proved critical, giving Henry's bodyguards time to fight off the attack.

By now, unless you have a keen interest in battlefield archaeology, you are probably wondering about Professor Foard and where he comes into the matter of Bosworth.  He is in fact the archaeologist who has spent the past few years proving that the Battle of Bosworth (or more accurately, the Battle of Redemore as it was called by contemporaries) took place, not on Ambion Hill where the Bosworth Visitor Centre is located, but in a marshy area several miles away.  Archaeological finds support the theory, based as it originally was on a study of local place names and first-hand accounts of the battle.  You may have heard about the silver-gilt badge depicting a boar (Richard III's personal emblem) which was found on the site and is considered almost conclusive evidence.

Archaeologists, battlefield guides and ignorant tourists alike can still pick up finds that reveal previously-unknown facts about military actions of the First World War.  Human remains are still being discovered and families informed of the final fate of their missing ancestors or relatives, almost a hundred years after those men were lost in action.  Likewise, new facts about the way the First World War was fought and the reasons for it are still being brought to light.  We can never hope to answer the question of whether it was right or wrong, or what might have happened if these events had never taken place.  Historians and archaeologists can satisfy our curiosity on many points but they cannot answer moral or hypothetical questions for us. 

Sassoon's approach to the problem of the continuation of the war was certainly a simplistic one, but what would have happened if he had not made his protest?  The war would probably not have ended any sooner or lasted any longer.  What a lone voice such as his could do, and has done over the many decades since, was to strengthen the resolve of other men and women who feared the consequences of making a moral stand.  It is this, rather than his military prowess, that makes him a hero of our times.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

All Roads Lead to France

I'm visiting Arras and the Somme region again next month, to see some of the places where Siegfried Sassoon fought, loved, read books, wrote verse and enjoyed the fellowship of other British soldiers exiled from their homeland, each of them conscious that every day might be their last.  While looking at these places and imbibing their atmosphere, we will read and discuss poetry that was written during and about the First World War.  It should be another memorable trip for me and for those members of the SSF who will be with me.

"Battlefield pilgrims", however, is a term I don't particularly care for.  It seems to me inaccurate on both counts.   Technically, the groups of tourists that make these journeys do visit battlefields, but few limit themselves to that.  Even the most enthusiastic of military historians and archaeologists would find it a sterile experience if they spent all their time analysing the terrain and mentally re-fighting armed conflicts that took place almost a hundred years ago.   Although this particular tour is organised by the Western Front Association, it is one of a special series taking place in consecutive years, each concentrating on a particular area and on particular poets who fought and often died in that region.

Geography is the key to history.  That's not an original saying of mine; I got it from Michael Wood, but it struck me immediately as a truth we do not always recognise.  To read Sassoon is to be transported to many places in turn: to the Weald of his youth, to the Edinburgh where he met Wilfred Owen, and of course to the Somme battlefields.  To be, physically, in those places is something rather different.  To see the landscape, still much as he saw it, is to understand him better.  This is what we go to the battlefields for, I think: to see the ground that was fought over, certainly, but mainly to share an experience with those men - and the occasional woman - whom we admire so much.

I will never forget, last year, our guide pointing out the exact spot where Roland Leighton, the fiancé of Vera Brittain, was killed in 1915.  That one event set off a chain reaction that had enormous consequences for English literature and for many of the feelings we have about the "Great" War today; Testament of Youth has probably done more than any other prose work in our language to influence the modern view of that war.  How thrilling - and chilling - it was to be so close to that tragic moment, even though separated from it by a century.  At the same time, it was in no way a celebration of "battlefields".

Much of our tour centred on graveyards.  To anyone who hasn't been, that must sound terribly depressing, if not mawkish.  I won't deny that seeing the graves of all those young men is not exactly a laugh a minute.  The British cemeteries of World War I are nevertheless peaceful places, places where the visitor can feel at one with the lost and fallen and can try, if not to make sense of it all, at least to recognise the impact their loss made on individuals, families and society in general.  Being there also enables us to appreciate the fantastic job done by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission - not just in France, but throughout the world.  If you are unfamiliar with it, please do have a look at their website:

In 2010 the SSF made a group visit to Ieper (Ypres), a city that was effectively razed to the ground during the First World War.  We stood on the spot where the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge met his death, coincidentally only a hundred yards from the place where the best-known Welsh-language poet of the war, Hedd Wyn, is buried.  It was a memorable visit, but of equal interest were several museums and visitor centres where people like Piet Chielens (curator of the recently-refurbished "In Flanders Fields" museum) have used their expertise to bring the war closer to those of us who find it difficult to imagine what the average serviceman endured.  One such place particularly stands out in my memory: the museum at Hill 62 which was not on our official itinerary.  Piled high with "junk" picked up from the battlefield, it made an impression precisely because of the refusal to attempt to analyse the content.  You can get some idea of it from looking at this website, which includes some film of the interior:  "Make of it what you will," commented one of my fellow members, and, at this distance in time, it is difficult to do anything else.  Neither military nor social historians can make up their minds about the significance of that war.

That's the "battlefields" dealt with, but what about those "pilgrims"?   One definition of a pilgrim is "one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee".  It's true up to a point - we are devotees of the history and literature of the First World War, but I don't think we see the Western Front as a holy place.  A sacred place, perhaps, if that is different, a place that demands our respect and thoughtfulness; but, if we go there merely to say we have gone there, as pilgrims often do, we will be missing the point of the exercise.  Nor do we go for religious reasons, though many do go in order to pay their respects to a distant relative; nowadays it is no longer possible for us to seek the memorials of anyone we remember in person.  A moving experience it certainly can be; but I still don't think it is a pilgrimage.

Last year, just before we set out, a friend told me that her great-grandfather was killed on the first day of the Somme and that his name was on the Thiepval Memorial.  Fortunately he had a very unusual surname and I was able to located him fairly quickly and photograph the result of my search.  What I didn't know was that she had never been there herself and she was thrilled to see the photograph.  It is not her great-grandfather's grave, but it is the nearest it is possible to get to it; the names on the monument are those of the missing.  I also didn't learn, until later, the human story behind the inscription; this particular soldier  left behind four children, who were orphaned a few years later when their mother died of tuberculosis. 

It is hard for us to imagine that level of human suffering in a country like the UK and, although hardship still occurs, we have made a certain amount of progress in a hundred years.  What has not, unfortunately, changed is our willingness to involve ourselves in armed conflicts, whether the causes be "good" or "bad" ones.  Sassoon saw this in 1917 and tried to make a lone stand against it.  Today he is often cited as an inspiration by those who make a similar protest.  Go and see what remains of the Western Front, whether as a "pilgrim" or as an interested visitor trying to get in touch with history, and you will appreciate him more than ever.