One of the most compelling soldier-poets of the first world war, Siegfried Sassoon is best known for his graphic, shocking portrayal of trench warfare and the terrible psychological distress it imposed upon its combatants. Sassoon, who came from a very rich family, had been a rather reluctant soldier. His experiences on the Western Front confirmed his view that the war represented patriotism gone terribly wrong. He eventually became a focal point of dissent among those who wished the war to end as quickly as possible. According to a critic for the Times Literary Supplement, “The dynamic quality of his war poems was due to the intensity of feeling which underlay its cynicism.”
Many of Sassoon’s most famous poems mock and criticise a way of thinking which Sassoon felt was all too common during the first world war: the idea that fighting for one’s country is noble whatever the motive, and that one can somehow overcome the emotional and physical trauma of battle by surrounding oneself with people who will pat you on the back and smile.
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Many of Sassoon’s closest friends died in the war — just some of the 17 million combatants to die during the First World War. Indeed one of the main triggers for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend David Cuthbert Thomas, from which Sassoon would take years to recover. Many of Sassoon’s poems are frank and graphic about the reality of death.
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In The Hero, Sassoon describes how crowds of civilians seem enthusiastic about the war and do not necessarily want the war to come to an end. All the while the psychological damage of the soldiers goes unnoticed. This theme is reinforced in Does it Matter? — instead of rejoicing that the soldiers have returned home, people simply smile and treat them kindly due to their ignorance of war.
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At the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty. Instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. Forwarded to the press and read out in the House of Commons by a sympathetic MP, the letter was seen by some as treasonous.
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The First World War deprived Britain of innumerable great writers, inventors and politicians, permanently changing the youth who lived through it. Sassoon‘s paradoxical war experience is representative of many young people. While opposing the war almost entirely, Sassoon was also exceptionally brave, perhaps displaying a somewhat youthful naivety in response to the situation.
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