|Siegfried Sassoon, Wikimedia, Public Domain|
The poetry of the “war poets” communicates in words the full horror of the 1914-1918 First World War. Siegfried Sassoon was born in September 1886 of a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother, and he died in September 1967 of tuberculosis. He was awarded the Military Cross during active duty for risking his life to rescue another soldier. His German first name does not indicate German ancestry; his mother chose it because she had a liking for Wagner operas!
Poetry of Direct, Personal Experience
Sassoon’s poems, like those of his fellow-poets, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, are touching accounts of very personal experience, yet at the same time, they are often uncomfortably direct and colloquial, so that they actually accuse those responsible for the carnage. The Rear Guard is one of his most haunting poems.
“Groping along the tunnel step by step, / He winked his prying torch with patching glare / From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.”
In the above lines, Sassoon is trying to convey to us the reality of being a common soldier as he “gropes” his way along, winking his tiny torch, smelling the unpleasant smells – all of these are ordinary everyday things and yet, this is an ordinary, everyday man in an extraordinary situation. He personifies, as an enemy, “the unwholesome air” The use of the past continuous tense at the beginning of the poem invites us to accompany him on this horrific journey, as he is groping, prying, sniffing.
In the beginning of the next stanza, he contrasts his plight with that of the soldiers above ground:
“Tins, bottles, boxes, shapes too vague to know,- / A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed; / And he, exploring, fifty feet below / The rose gloom of battle overhead.”
The use of the word “rose” is unexpected and gives a mystical, sinister image of the battle being waged overhead.
An horrific encounter begins in the second half of the second stanza, running over into the third.
“Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw some one lie / Humped and asleep, half-hidden by a rug; / And stooped to give the sleeper's arm a tug. / "I'm looking for Headquarters." No reply..."
"God blast your neck" (for days he'd had no sleep), / "Get up and guide me through this stinking place." / Then, with a savage kick at the silent heap, / He flashed his beam across a livid face / Horribly glaring up; and the eyes yet wore / Agony dying hard ten days before; / And twisted fingers clutched a blackening wound.”
Using rough soldier’s language in his dialogue, and rough soldier’s behaviour, Sassoon involves us in the stress and frustration of men faced with the possibility of violent and sudden death: We sense the recoil in Sassoon’s description of the dead soldier with his livid face and whose eyes still betrayed the agony of an appalling death.
The imagery at the end of the poem is stunning, with its personification portraying what these men had become:
“Alone, he staggered on until he found / Dawn's ghost, that filtered down a shafted stair /
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground, / Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound. / At last, with sweat of horror in his hair, / He climbed through darkness to the twilight air, / Unloading hell behind him, step by step.”
That dawn should be a ghost would seem, in an ordinary world, a contradiction. There is a sense of otherwordliness in the men in the fighting tunnels, a non-humanness in their being, as well as a sense of futility, for the soldier must go on in spite of his mental anguish.
A Challenge to the Assumptions of War
Siegfried Sassoon became a conscientious objector. Through his courageous, plain speaking, both in his personal life and in his poetry, he challenged the assumptions about war in a powerful way. Here is the first paragraph of a letter, as it appears in Pat Barker's Regeneration, entitled "Finished with the War, A Soldier's Declaration."
"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." The letter is signed S. Sassoon and dated July 1917.
Selected Poems, Siegfried Sassoon, Faber, 1968
Regeneration, Pat Barker, Viking, 1991 (Please note this is a biographical novel and based on both fact and speculation. The quotation used above is a factual one.)