Anti War Hero   2 comments

When you hear the term war hero you usually picture battlefield bravery — charging enemy lines in the face of incoming fire, risking one’s life to save the lives of friends, enduring painful injuries without complaint — but I’m not that enamored with those who go to war, so I sought a war hero who stuck his neck out to oppose the very war in which he fought.

If we more readily associated heroism in war with the courageous resistance to our government’s aggression, the world’s nations might shed far less innocent blood.

Siegfried Sassoon was both a war hero and anti-war hero.

Sassoon was the son of an English Catholic mother and a Jewish father from Baghdad. From an early age, he showed both literary and artistic talent. His last name means “joy” in Hebrew. His mother named him “Siegfried” because of her love of Richard Wagner’s operas. Otherwise, Siegfried’s only connection to Germany was his service to Britain in the tragically misnamed “war to end all wars”, the one that laughably made the world “safe for democracy.”

Most of us have very little understanding of World War I. We take history courses that fail to explain why there was so much unimaginable slaughter and devastation. Truthfully, few adventures in history were more absurd in origin, outrageous in duration and counterproductive in their outcomes as World War I.

When the world stumbled into war, Sassoon was a 27-year-old carefree novelist and avid cricket player. Not waiting to be drafted, he patriotically joined the British Army and was already in service with the Sussex Imperial Yeomanry on August 4 when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. He was commissioned with the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a second lieutenant in May 1915. November of 1915 Sassoon’s brother was killed in the Gallipoli disaster, and, days later, Siegfried himself was sent to the front lines in France.

Almost immediately, he inspired the deepest confidence of the men serving under him. On bombing patrols and night raids, he demonstrated stunning efficiency as a company commander. He single-handedly stormed an enemy trench and scattered 60 German soldiers. Nicknamed Mad Jack by his men for his near-suicidal courage, he was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry…. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all of the killed and wounded were brought in.”

One of every eight British men who served on the western front in World War I died in the trenches or in the ghastly death zones that separated them. Casualties, which included the wounded and the killed, totaled a staggering 56%.

The reality of machine gun warfare in the endless gridlock of trench warfare makes it impossible for us to truly grasp it, but Sassoon, having witnessed it first hand, made an attempt to describe it in vivid poetry.

A supreme irony of the Great War’s carnage was the emergence of magnificent British war poetry, of which Sassoon was one of the best. These were warriors who had come face-to-face with their own mortality, had their innocence obliterated, seen life squandered, witnessed the death of close friends, the failure of modernity, and the nightmarish inferno of combat. The more he experienced the agonies of those around him, the more he questioned the purpose and sanity of the enterprise. Agog at the astonishing rate of servicemen taking their own lives, Sassoon wrote “Suicide in the Trenches,” one of his many poems focusing on the conflict:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

 

Three years into the war, Sassoon had had enough. “In war-time,” he wrote, “the word patriotism means suppression of truth.” After a period of convalescence from war wounds, he declined to return to duty and threw his Military Cross medal into the river Mersey. His conscience compelled him to write this letter to his commanding officer in July 1917:

I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

“I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

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.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realize.  — Siegfried Sassoon

Before the month was out, Sassoon’s letter became a sensation across Britain. A sympathetic member of the House of Commons read it aloud and The London Times printed it the next day.

The country’s military and political hierarchy debated how to respond. Sassoon might have been court-martialed and executed, but his reputation both in print and on the battlefield pushed the authorities to decide he was mentally ill, deranged “shell shock”. They sent him for treatment to Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, Scotland.

At Craiglockhart, W.H.R. Rivers, the psychiatrist and officer attending to Sassoon, was quickly convinced that this principled young man was in full possession of his faculties. While hospitalized, Sassoon befriended Wilfred Owen, another war poet also remanded to Craiglockhart for “shell shock”. Upon his return to the battlefield a few months later, Owen would be killed on the eve of the war’s end.

Unable to prove that anything was physically or mentally wrong with Sassoon, the British military underwent a change of heart. They released him from Craiglockhart and even promoted him to lieutenant. In July 1918, in spite of all that he had endured, Sassoon volunteered to return to the Western front. He hadn’t changed his mind about the war; he simply couldn’t stand the thought of not being of assistance to the men in the trenches.

Within days of returning to battle, Sassoon was wounded in the head by a fellow British soldier who mistook him for the enemy. He recovered, but it was that “friendly fire” that took him permanently off the front. The war itself finally ground to bloody halt four months later with a death toll of more than 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians.

Siegfried Sassoon lived another half century, earning his living as a poet, editor, novelist, and public lecturer. He married and fathered a son. His politics tended toward the left, but that’s not, fortunately, what he’s best remembered for. When war with Hitler came in 1939, he lamented but supported it, believing it a necessity brought on by the folly of the previous war.

It’s not uncommon for great issues to elicit an alteration of perspective from even the best man or woman. In time, he expressed some doubt about his stance in 1917 but his deeds and words during the Great War would forever define his legacy. I personally prefer to see him in those years as courageous and principled when under fire, no matter what form the fire took.

 

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2 responses to “Anti War Hero

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  1. That’s somethnig they never told us about in our history lessons at school. ???

    Like

    • Remember, I’m American. They never told us. Maybe they told English folks. I wouldn’t know. I would lay down money that no one in the United States learned it in school, although we can discover it on our own by reading books.

      Like

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