There’s an article in today’s Guardian about the excellent news that the National Heritage Memorial Fund has allocated £550,000 to ensure that Siegfried Sassoon’s archive stays in this country.
The only downside to this is that the Guardian has appealed to the usual suspects for quotations, and some of these are a bit off-target. Andrew Motion, for example, says: “It is not only good news as a symbolic statement, but a lot of the material in the archive forms the backbone of our understanding of what it was like on the frontline during world war one.”
Really? But in the words of his biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson:
Remarkable though it may seem, Sassoon, who was in the army from the day War broke out to the day it ended and had the reputation of being a fire-eater, spent barely a month out of a possible fifty-one in the front line.
Most of that front-line experience was during the highly untypical first weeks of the Somme battle, and Sassoon was a most untypical soldier. For an understanding of what typical front-line experience meant, I’d suggest Max Plowman, maybe, or A.M.Burrage.
Then in the G2 section there is a piece by Michael Morpurgo, who has sentimentalised the War in Private Peaceful and other works. He begins his piece on Sassoon with an attention-grabbing paragraph about men shot at dawn for cowardice, and then adds:
As far as I know, Siegfried Sassoon didn’t write about these soldiers.
He goes on to suggest that Sassoon would have written indignantly about them if he’d thought of it, which seems dubious to me. He didn’t after all, show much sympathy for the ‘cold-footed useless swine’ in ‘The Hero’, though he offered compassion to the man’s mother, and shows plenty of fellow-feeling for the rather conventional officer who has tried to offer consolation:
‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.
He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
There’s another ‘cold-footed’ character in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’. An officer who ‘had now lost control of himself’, he was stumbling back to Headquarters when he should have been going in the other direction. Sassoon ‘pulled out my automatic pistol, and told him that if he didn’t go straight back […] I’d shoot him.’ It was for the man’s own good, Sassoon argues, since he saved him from being court-martialled for cowardice. But all the same, the attitude seems pretty different from the one implied by Morpurgo.
Morpurgo puts the icing on his rhetorical cake by claiming:
Sassoon had the courage to say what, at the time, you absolutely couldn’t say, and to some extent, still can’t: that there was no point in just going on fighting and fighting.
But this Remembrancetide, that is exactly what almost everyone will be saying about the Great War. Sassoon’s attitude, once brave and extraordinary, has become the conventional wisdom about the conflict. It’s rather ridiculous for Morpugo to be trying to present his utterly conventional views as in some way brave or subversive. By the 1940s, Sassoon himself was casting doubt on the political sense of his campaign for a negotiated peace.
Still, it’s very good news that the archive has been saved – it will be kept at Cambridge, apparently. But dont expect to find in it some ultimate simple truth about the War. Sassoon was a complicated man, and study of the archive is more likely to reveal new complexities, of character and attitude, than the grand simplicities beloved of Morpurgo.