Siegfried Sassoon, born on 8 September 1886, has become one of the most well known war poets. His poems describe the horrors of war, as he became increasingly critical of war and began to despise the patriotism which fueled the conflict.
Siegfried had a Jewish father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon, an Anglo-Catholic mother and grew up in Matfield, Kent. His father was part of the Sassoon dynasty, the wealthy Baghdadi Jewish merchant family who became known as the ‘Rothschilds of the East.’
Matfield is a small village in the civil parish of Brenchley, Tunbridge Wells. His mother, Theresa Sassoon, a sculptor, planted an oak tree in the village to mark the end of the First World War. It’s still present today, although the original tree has been replaced.
Siegfried was born in a house called Weirleigh to Theresa Thornycroft who married Alfred Ezra Sassoon. Siegfried’s mother, Georgiana Theresa, born in 1853, was a member of the Thornycroft family of well-known sculptors. Her brother Hamo was the author of several sculptures in London, her father Thomas’s work was commissioned by public corporations to create effigies of important persons to adorn town halls and city squares.
Her mother, Mary, had important statues, much appreciated by royalty; Prince Albert and the Queen had many of her works at their summer residence on the Isle of Wight. Theresa received advanced education and was observant of the Christian Anglo-Catholic Religion and loved an ordered and structured society. The family lived in London Melbury Rd. Holland Park.
Siegfried’s father was part of the well-known Jewish wealthy Sassoon family of merchants, originally from Bagdad, then India, who arrived in England in 1858 with Sassoon David Sassoon – Siegfried’s grandfather, known as SD. The latter established an office in East London in Leadenhall Street. His wife, Farha, and 3 children joined him soon after. Farha changed her name to Flora, but they were very loyal, observant Hassidic Jews. They moved to Ashley Park near Walton on Thames.
In 1861 Flora gave birth to her second son, Alfred Ezra – Siegfried’s father. Alfred’s father, SD, died early at the age of 35 from a major heart attack. Flora remained the head of the family with her 3 children John, Albert and Rachel. John took an interest in the business while Albert, the favourite of his mother, had no aptitude for commerce; he played the violin, and showed interest in literature and the arts.
He attended classes at the RA in 1883. The two families became acquainted through the requests of the Sassoons to have sculptures of their children. A friendship between Rachel Sassoon and Theresa Thorneycroft emerged and the two remained loyal to each other throughout their life.
Albert met Theresa who was 8 years older than him and they fell in love. They got married against the Sassoon family’s wishes through special dispensation on 30 Jan 1884 at St Mary Abbott Church in Kensington. Flora disinherited her son and stood Shiva – the ceremony for the dead – and forbade her family to have contact with him or his new family. Three sons were born to the couple: John, Siegfried and Hamo. The Thorneycroft family accepted and nurtured the new family.
Rachel Beer, Alfred’s younger sister married in 1887 Frederick Beer, the owner of ‘The Observer’. As a gift her husband bought her ‘The Sunday times’ where she became editor-in-chief encouraging new writers. She maintained the relationship with Alfred and Theresa and left a substantial inheritance to Siegfried. The Beers lived at Chesterfield Gardens, Mayfair.
Unfortunately, her husband had congenital syphilis that he never disclosed to his wife. He died young. Rachel as editor, was defiant of bigotry. She campaigned for justice for another Jew, Alfred Dreyfuss (The Old Century). She also campaigned against antisemitism. In later life she will acquire syphilis herself from her husband and die suffering with dementia.
Siegfried’s parents, although each devoted to the children, separated as the father fell out of love and fell in love with an American author, Julia C Fletcher (pen name-George Fleming). Alfred and Theresa divorced in 1889.
Multiple members of the Sassoon family resided in Brighton, including Flora Sassoon. However as Alfred married outside Judaism, he was disinherited. Siegfried’s mother, Theresa, also had a notable family background. The Thornycroft family were notable sculptors responsible for many statues in London. Siegfried has two brothers, Michael and Hamo. When Siegfried was four, his parents separated. Later in 1895, Siegfried’s father died of tuberculosis.
As he was from a wealthy family, Siegfried was expensively educated. He went to New Beacon school in Kent followed by school in Wiltshire and Clare College, Cambridge before returning to Wiltshire.
He attended Marlborough College, boarding school, and progressed to Cambridge University to study history though he did not complete this degree. After leaving Cambridge in 1907 and until the start of the war, Siegfried lived a comfortable life playing cricket and writing poetry. He achieved moderate success in 1913 with his book, The Daffodil Murderer.
Sassoon joined the British Army when the threat of war was recognised. This meant on 4th August 1914 when war was officially declared, Siegfried was already enlisted with the Sussex Yeomanry. The day before, ‘motivated by patriotism’, he had enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry at Lewes drill hall. Max Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon: A Biography, (Pan MacMillian, 2014) available via Google Books, pp. 63, 65, 99 & 199.
He spent two nights sleeping on the floor of Lewes Corn Exchange, before being sent off to training camp. In 1915, he was posted to France, and while at the front, he would spend time thinking about the countryside around Ringmer, where he had ridden with the South Downs Hunt.
He enlisted as a Trooper in C Squadron in 1st Battalion Sussex Yeomanry, Royal Sussex Regiment, he was commissioned in the 3rd (attached 1st) Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers in April 1915. He later became a Captain.
He was unable to serve immediately however. Before even leaving England, Sassoon broke his arm in a riding accident which meant he remained away from action until 1915.
1915 proved a difficult year for Siegfried. On 1st November, his brother Hamo was killed in Gallipoli which hit Siegfried hard. During the war, his cousin Donald and his friend, David Thomas, were also killed, which drove Siegfried with a reckless desire to attack the German front line. ‘I was angry with the war and killing Germans was the only way it could be assuaged’.From Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.
- Trooper in C Squadron in 1st Battalion Sussex Yeomanry, Royal Sussex Regiment, Aug 1914
- Commissioned as an officer (2nd Lieut) in April 1915.
- Regimental training at Litherland near Liverpool, then Cambridge. On Nov 17, he embarked for France main war camp at Etaples. Posted to C Company of 1st Battalion, Bethume. Siegfried had a platoon of 60 men to transport supplies through the labyrinth of communication trenches. His younger brother, Hamo, was killed same month at Gallipoli.
- December 1915, battalion moved to Amiens on the Somme.
- March 1916 entered the front-line trenches
- 27 July 1916, while a 2nd Lieut, he was awarded a ‘Military Cross for bringing back a wounded soldier during heavy fire’
- April 1917 evacuated back to Britain to convalesce
- 31 July 1917 wrote to Times objecting to the War
- 1918 promoted to lieutenant, then acting captain, shot in head, recuperated for the rest of the war
In 1915, Siegfried was sent to France and saw the brutality of trench warfare as a second lieutenant of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
A strong influence on Sassoon’s poetry was his interactions with Robert Graves, a fellow poet and close friend. The tone of Sassoon’s poetry changed after being exposed to the reality of war, emphasising the futility of war with the intention to convey the reality of the trenches to audiences with patriotic perceptions of war.
Sassoon became a distinguished soldier, receiving medals for bravery in action. Robert Graves describes the actions of Sassoon, who single handedly captured a German trench armed with grenades which scattered sixty German soldiers.
‘He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz Wood had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. “British patrols” were Siegfried and his book of poems. “I’d have got you a D.S.O., if you’d only shown more sense,” stormed Stockwell.’
Quote: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (London: Penguin, 1960), p. 174
There seems to be a contradiction between Sassoon’s diminishing support for war in his poetry and his gallant actions. It was said his deepening depression at the horror of war produced a manic courage in him, encouraging him to take suicidal risks. His bold exploits gave him the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ among his men.
‘The General’ by Siegfried Sassoon
“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,” grunted Harry to Jack As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. But he did for them both by his plan of attack.https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57217/the-general-56d23a7de4d1c
On 27th July 1916, Sassoon was awarded the Military Cross, a medal for officers recognising exemplary gallantry. Below is the London Gazette issue describing Sassoon’s acts.
Though he was well decorated as a soldier, in 1917 Sassoon decided to take a public stand against the war. This was partly motivated by the death of his friend David Cuthbert Thomas. At this point, he had returned to Sussex to recover from war injuries, staying at Chapelwood, Nutley near Uckfield, the home of Earl and Countess Brassey.Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon, p. 136, plus ‘Nutwood Manor [sic] was everything that a wounded officer could wish for…memories of the good old days when I hunted with the Ringwell [sic]’ – excerpt from Memories of an Infantry Officer, Sassoon’s fictionalised account of his war-time experiences describing a time when he was deciding whether to go back to the Front for a third time, p. 259.
While there, he decided to protest against the war. Encouraged by pacifist friends at Garsington in Oxfordshire, his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ was sent to the press and read out in Parliament. In this famous letter to the Times, Sassoon wrote against the military authority.
‘”I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. […] I have seen and endured the suffering 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 insincerity’s for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.’
Complete statement can be read here.
This act put Sassoon at risk of being court martialed. To avoid this, Siegfried was instead withdrawn from military service under claims of illness from shell shock. It was in hospital for shell shock where Sassoon met fellow war poet Wilfred Owen and the two shared poetry and suggestions. Both Sassoon and Owen returned to service in France in 1918.
Having returned to the front yet again, he was wounded ( On 13 July 1918, Sassoon was shot by friendly fire) and had to recuperate for the rest of the war. Siegfried survived this and returned to England where he remained for the rest of the war.
He refused to return to the front and was sent to a Medical Board, where he was declared as suffering from ’neurasthenia’ (‘shell-shock’) and treated at Craiglockhart hospital, Edinburgh. After the war he lived in London (1919-1932).
He became famous for his war writings and poems, and moved in artistic circles that included the artist, Mark Gertler, the writers Bertrand Russell, Robert Graves and Virginia Woolf, and the poets, Wilfred Owen and WB Yeats, among others.
Sassoon’s poems are now widely studied, alongside those of Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves. These works exposed the horrors of war to audiences at home.
On Sassoon, Primo Levi wrote “One can experience in his poetry the slow, restless ripening of a very great talent; its magnitude has not yet been recognised. … He is one of the few poets of his generation we are really unable to do without.”
Siegfried was gay and had relationships with the actor, Ivor Novello, and the aristocrat, Stephen Tennant (1906-1987), among others. The relationship with Tennant stopped abruptly when in December 1933, Siegfried married Hester Gatty.
They had a son, George Sassoon (1936-2006) and separated in 1945. They lived at Heytesbury House in Wiltshire, which he bought as his married home with an inheritance from his aunt, the newspaper editor, Rachel Beer.
Siegfried is notably famous for his poems and the Sherston Trilogy which commemorated his friend, David Thomas, killed in the First World War. Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) reflects his military experience. In 1957, Siegfried converted to Roman Catholicism.
Sassoon died on 1st September 1967 in Heytesbury, Wiltshire and was buried in St Andrews’ churchyard, Mells, Mendip district, Somerset aged 80.
Information sourced from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siegfried_Sassoon and https://www.biographyonline.net/military/siegfried-sassoon.html