Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General”

Siegfried Sassoon survived World War I and was one of its most famous poets; he was a mentor to Wilfred Owen and friend to Robert Graves (who I’ll be writing about in another post). Sassoon is one of the characters in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first in a remarkable trilogy of books about the war (and yes, I’ll be writing a Pat Barker post too).

Sassoon was an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, beloved by his men and given the nickname “Mad Jack” for his daring exploits, which often amounted to near-suicide missions.

In 1917, Sassoon sent a three-paragraph letter (which you can read in full here) to his commanding officer and several newspapers (it was read later in Parliament) protesting the war. Here’s the second paragraph:

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

Though he could have been court-martialed for sending the letter, Sassoon was instead declared unfit for duty — thanks to the offices of his friend Robert Graves — and sent to convalesce at Craiglockhart hospital. (This “convalescence” is the subject of Regeneration.)

In 1918, Sassoon published Counter-Attack And Other Poems, a slim volume that includes some of his best work. Like Owen and Rosenberg, Sassoon writes of the grim and grisly sights of war, in poems whose immediacy is driven home by the use of dialogue. He reserves special contempt for those who do not fight themselves — the press, women, generals, even himself, haunted by ghosts in the poem “Sick Leave”:

In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
“When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”

Sassoon decided to return to the front to fight in solidarity with his men, to do his best to protect them from the enemy — even if that enemy was the man supposedly leading them all. Here’s the bitter, nearly-funny poem “The General”:

“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

You can read the full text of Counter-Attack and Other Poems at Project Gutenberg or Bartleby.

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5 thoughts on “Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General”

  1. I have often wondered how soldiers deal with fighting and dying based on an officer’s poor decision or when the war they signed up for changes focus, just as he says in his letter. I appreciate Sassoon’s perspective on that and his letter of willful defiance is superb. I also like that many of his poems are angry. I don’t find anything in poems that glorify war but I can relate to the anger.

  2. What breaks my heart are how so many of these poets, who so clearly hated the war, died during it. Owen’s bitterness was palpable, and he died before it’s end. At least Sassoon made it out, and it’s a strong testament that he would go back to protect his fellow soldiers despite hating the war so wholly. Thanks for a great post.

  3. Pingback: “Who now shall refill the cup for me?” | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

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