Sassoon and ‘Atrocities’

An article in today’s Observer describes a batch of Sassoon manuscripts, coming up for sale at a London auction-house.
The poems seem mostly to be from the twenties, but the article describes a hitherto-unknown draft of ‘Atrocities’, his poem about the brutal killing of German prisoners, and claims that Sassoon toned down his first draft for publication:

The original version of the poem includes the phrases “you’re great at murder” and “gulp their blood in ghoulish dreams”, which were later deleted.

I’d want to see the whole draft to be sure, but I doubt that was self-censorship, but just the ordinary task of a poet, revising to get the tone right. These phrases are more melodramatic than the final version, and probably less successful at defining the men they are describing.
The article gives as an example of toning down:

After his first stanza’s description of “butchered” prisoners, the printed second stanza reads: “How did you do them in? …” But in the draft, Sassoon wrote: “How did you kill them? …”

Surely the colloquial ‘do them in’ is stronger than ‘kill them’, not weaker, because it presents the language of the killers for our inspection, and invites the reader to look beyond the euphemism.
The letter accompanying the draft may be of more interest than the draft itself. In it:

Sassoon voices despair at “Canadians & Australians airing their exploits in the murder line”, adding: “I know of very atrocious cases. Only the other day an officer of a Scotch regiment … was regaling me with stories of how his chaps put bombs in prisoners’ pockets & then shoved them into shell-holes full of water. But of course these things aren’t atrocities when we do them. Nevertheless, they are an indictment of war – some people can’t help being like that when they are out there.”

‘Atrocities’ exists in several versions – and Sassoon may have had mixed feelings about it, since it is not included in the Collected Poems (first published in 1947, enlarged in 1961, and paperbacked more recently by Faber, with no indication that it is less than complete). It was only reinstated into the Sassoon canon in 1983, by Rupert Hart-Davis, in his edition of The War Poems.

Here it is:

ATROCITIES
You told me, in your drunken-boasting mood,
How once you butchered prisoners. That was good!
I’m sure you felt no pity while they stood
Patient and cowed and scared, as prisoners should.

How did you do them in? Come, don’t be shy:
You know I love to hear how Germans die,
Downstairs in dug-outs. “Camerad!” they cry;
Then squeal like stoats when bombs begin to fly.
* * * * *
And you? I know your record. You went sick
When orders looked unwholesome: then, with trick
And lie, you wangled home. And here you are,
Still talking big and boozing in a bar.

Why might Sassoon have cut this poem from his collected works? Maybe because of the last four lines.
The first eight give a graphic and very effective picture of the drunken boaster, his cruelty and his macho attitudes. The end of the poem, though, takes a different tack. Now, rather than criticising the soldier for being too macho, he attacks him for being not manly enough, for dodging the front line when ‘orders looked unwholesome’. It’s the conventional cliché that the bully is under his bluster bound to be a coward, which is by no means always true, I think. It draws a very conventional contrast between the ‘good’ soldier who suffers and endures, and the ‘bad’ one who swaggers – once again, something of a cliché.
Some novelists of the twenties dealt with the murder of prisoners more subtly. In Wilfrid Ewart’s Way of Revelation (1921) for instance, Eric is presented as the exemplary soldier, until this worrying passage:

When the platoon sergeant inquired what he should do with his prisoners, Eric said:

“They’re a couple of the swine who fire the minenwerfer, I suppose. Do what you like with ‘em!”

“Oh, send ‘em down to Brigade Headquarters, Eric -” protested Adrian.

“Come along!” said his company-commander, cutting him short. “They’re no use to us.”

The platoon-sergeant laughed.

Passing back that way half-an-hour later, they found the Germans lying dead in the trench…

The passage makes the reader uneasy about Eric, but elsewhere in the novel he has been presented as the ideal soldier, instinctively taking to the military life, which his friend Adrian finds it difficult to adapt to. Ewart presents us with a moral paradox: this sort of gung-ho and cruel attitude is nasty, but  is what you find in the kind of man who is going to win the war. Sassoon avoids this difficulty in his poem, by presenting the committer of the atrocities as a poor soldier and as a coward. Yet that letter suggests that it was the Canadians and Australians who did the boasting that offended him – and he must have known that these were renowned as the most effective soldiers under British command (partly because the Dominion forces contained many ex-soldiers who had settled in Canada and Australia after leaving the Army, and had returned to the colours in 1914, with much more military experience behind them than the average English battalion). Could the Allies have won the War without them?

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5 Comments

  1. Posted February 4, 2013 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    George, are you aware if Anne Perry’s WW1 series will be made into a television series for the upcoming centennial?

    • Posted February 4, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

      I rather hope not. The only one that I have read was quite exciting but very silly.

  2. Posted February 5, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I agree that it’s a less morally complicated (and thus less interesting) account of atrocities than Ewart’s. But what struck me here too was how the poem shows Sassoon to have been much more than a straightforwardly ‘anti-war’ poet. Atrocities isn’t condemning war so much as it is condemning war fought in a particular unchivalric way.

    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      This sort of attitude is found in other Sassoon poems, too. In ‘The Hero’, for instance, the narrator is contemptuous of the ‘cold-footed, useless swine’ who has been killed, and saves his compassion for the mother.
      But then, it’s Sassoon’s contradictions that make him interesting.

      • Deb Fisher
        Posted February 11, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        How I do agree!


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