Siegfried Sassoon joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in World War I and fought in France. Having been wounded twice, he was awarded the Military Cross. He threw it away in disgust because he believed that the war was being prolonged by those who had the power to end it. This disenchantment with the ideals of his superiors is savagely unleashed in the bitterness of the irony in "The General", a short but extremely powerful poem.
"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."
Here, there is a line-break, like a terrible pause, before the final last line: "But he did for them both with his plan of attack."
Dramatic Effects of "The General"
The poem has a brisk, iambic pace with a strong, masculine stress on the last syllable of each line. The first line begins innocuously enough with the "Good morning" greeting, although the expectation of a crisp, cheerful poem is dashed with dramatic effect at the third line, when we learn that the soldiers he'd smiled at were mostly dead.
The suddenness of this revelation is shockingly matter-of-fact. Sassoon's identification with the men who have been lost in action is emphasised in the colloquial "'em". Sassoon is saying that these are ordinary men, men who followed orders and who hardly seemed to matter in the broad scheme of political plans and policies.
An Accusatory Stance in Sassoon's Poetry
The use of dialogue is picked up again in "He's a cheery old card," muttered Harry to Jack." By naming the men, Sassoon makes them personal and, therefore, real for us. He intensifies the contrast of this throw-away comment with the ironic last line: "But he did for them both with his plan of attack." In this way Sassoon both apportions blame for the outrage and also accuses "The General" of hypocrisy and apathy. By separating this final line from the main stanza, he draws our attention to its central accusation. This accusatory stance is the focus of much of Sassoon's poetry - although not all of it.
In his letter "Finished with the War, A Soldier's Declaration" Sassoon blamed the suffering of soldiers on the complacency and insufficient imaginations of those who manipulated their lives.
- Sassoon, Siefried, Selected Poems, Faber, 1968.
- Barker, Pat , Regeneration, Viking, 1991.