Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Siegfried's Last Stand

We are fast approaching the centenary of Siegfried Sassoon's final appearance on the Western Front. On 13th July 1918, he was wounded, as a result of which he was invalided home, once and for all, and never had to return to battle. Since it was a head wound, his thinking was affected for several days afterwards, so the feelings of relief (mixed with guilt) he would doubtless otherwise have experienced took some time to come to the fore.
He voices these feelings in a diary entry from hospital: "When I was hit it seemed an unspeakable thing to leave my men in the lurch, to go away into safety." As he was leaving the trench, he reassured the sergeant-major that he would be coming back. "You'll see me in three weeks," he told another officer as he attended the dressing-station. Determined not to return to Blighty, he wrote to friends saying he would remain in France until he was able to return to duty.
He had returned to the Western Front in May, after a period of service in Palestine, where there was little action apparently going on. At first bored, he had come to enjoy his time in the Middle East. He had not yet met T E Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia", who would become a firm friend. Thrown together with a medical officer, Captain Biggar, who was also a naturalist, he had begun bird-spotting, and regularly escaped into the woods and hills, partly in order to get away from the rest of the officers, many of whom he regarded with contempt because of their superior attitude. During this period he continued to receive letters from WIlfred Owen (whom he had met at Craiglockhart a year earlier), though, as Sam Gray showed in his recent talk at the joint London meeting, Siegfried was not very good at replying. Of the poems he wrote during that period, he commented, acknowledging his debt to Owen, "Unconsciously, I was getting nearer to Wilfred Owen's method of approach."
He had often thought about death, but perhaps not about the possibility of escaping death. "It seemed that across the Channel I had nothing to go back to..." He missed the company of his men and other officers such as his second-in-command Vivian da Sola Pinto, who had rapidly become a friend. Pinto too would survive the war. A visit from Rivers, while Sassoon was in the hospital at Lancaster Gate, put him in a better frame of mind.
Embarrassment must also have played a part in Sassoon's feelings. The wound that put him out of action was caused by his own recklessness. Returning from a patrol in no-man's-land, without his helmet, he was shot in the head by a sergeant from his own platoon, who mistook him for a German. It seems rather typical of Sassoon, from what we know of his earlier exploits, that he should have been so careless.
After a while, he began to imagine he could return to the Front as a disinterested commentator, but recognised this as an irrational desire. He hoped for a request to return as a representative of the Ministry of Information, but this idea was soon put paid to by Eddie Marsh, who told him that his reputation as a poet made it "unimaginable" that he might be employed by any government body. Eventually, in August, Wilfred was in London, and Siegfried was well enough to meet him for that "hot cloudless afternoon" (much like the weather as I write). They had tea at Osbert Sitwell's house in Swan Walk, Chelsea, and Sitwell took them to an impromptu concert at the home of the harpsichordist Violet Gordon Woodhouse, an important figure in the Early Music revival. Sassoon did not know that it would be the last time he would see Owen before he departed for France, still less that it would be their last meeting ever. He wrote to Owen from Coldstream, and received a reply while Owen was out of the line.
I do not know why he was so confident that he was never going back. Despite the failure of the German spring offensive and a general feeling that Britain was getting into a winning position, the war could easily have lasted another year or two. Yet somehow Sassoon felt assured that his war was over. In September he hoped to be offered a job with the Ministry of Munitions, but in the end he turned it down because of a feeling that it would be "inconsistent with my previous outburst against the prolongation of the War".
Yet he no longer felt as though he was still on active service, and had begun to feel "liberated and irresponsible". He would remain haunted by memories and regrets, especially after the Armistice in November, but for the moment he was happy, having encountered among his fellow convalescent officers another poet, Frank "Toronto" Prewett. The end of the war would eventually bring both joy and sorrow - the loss of his friend Wilfred Owen, and his replacement by two new friends, Thomas Hardy and T E Lawrence. There were many obstacles to be overcome before he could return to any semblance of normal life, and perhaps he never really would.
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