Today in Literary History – September 8, 1886 – poet Siegfried Sassoon is born

The World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon was born in Kent on September 8, 1886 to a Christian mother and a Jewish father. His father’s family, the Sasoons, who made their fortune mostly in India and were known as “the Rothschilds of the East,” disowned and dis-inhereted Sassoon’s father for his marriage outside the Jewish faith.

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Sassoon served in World War I with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and acted heroically, some said almost suicidally, taking reckless risks. He captured a German trench single handedly, rescued a soldier from behind enemy lines under heavy fire and led daring midnight raids. The soldiers under his command admiringly nicknamed him “Mad Jack.”

He won the Military Cross, one of the highest medals for bravery, and was recommended for the Victoria Cross but didn’t receive it because of a controversial and reckless action. While recuperating in hospital after being wounded he wrote an open letter, published in British newspapers and read aloud in parliament, criticizing the war effort and declaring his refusal to return to the front.

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His status as a war hero and the intervention of his influential friends saved him from a firing squad and he was transferred to a hospital treating soldiers suffering from what was then called “shell shock,” which today we would call PTSD. It was there he began writing his searing and satirical poems showing war in all its violent absurdity.

Sassoon briefly met Rupert Brooke and had long friendships with Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, who together form the Pantheon of First World War poets.

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I began reading them with more care recently. Sassoon stands out for me as someone who not only conveys the horrors of war in graphically violent images but also skewers the folly of high commanders and the hypocrisy of jingoism in poems like “The Hero,” “Decorated” and “Base Details.” He also wrote three semi-autobiographical novels.

Sassoon died in 1967 at the age of eighty.

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