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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Recommended Reading: Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

One of the many gifts my father has given me is sharing his lifelong interest in World War I, that brutal period in history that often disappears into its sequel’s shadow. The war was terrifying in its intensity, its stagnation, its sheer totality. And it also produced some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century before an entire generation of young poets, novelists, painters — an entire generation of young men — was wiped out.

[Which is not to say that that women didn’t suffer didn’t the war, or that there were no incredibly talented women writers and artists of the period; see my earlier post on Anna Akhmatova.]

Some other time I’ll write a post on my recommended reading on the war, but for now, let’s talk Pat Barker.

If you haven’t read Ms. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), drop everything and make a run for your neighborhood bookstore. The trilogy is complex and marvelous, focusing especially on the war’s psychological effects on soldiers. Particularly masterful is the way Barker blends fact and fiction; her characters interact with historical figures like Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. Readers with STEM proclivities will appreciate her fine understanding of scientific and medical concepts.

As you might imagine, I was delighted to run across Ms. Barker’s lastest book, Toby’s Room (2012), in our local library a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read the jacket copy after I finished the novel that I realized that Toby’s Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007), which I promptly found and read next. I say ‘a sequel of sorts’ because the timelines in the two books overlap, as do the characters, though the focus shifts among them. I would describe the two novels as companion pieces.

Both are concerned with trauma—emotional and physical, resulting from war and from domestic life—and its relationship to art. Once again, Ms. Barker’s characters blend seamlessly into a landscape populated by very real figures. Of particular interest is the work of Henry Tonks, which I won’t say much more about in order not to spoil the plot of the books.