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:

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 novel 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?


  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!

  3. absconn
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks for seeing beyond the silly “censorship” chatter of those who have decided, it would seem, to view the centennial. And, tx. for the notes from some that it’s not strict pacifism. And for noticing that this is improved from what I can glean of the draft.

    As for this poem, I may think it a bit better than you. It would seem to capture directly the story he heard, so perhaps the last stanza is accurate in detail besides contrasting the two poses.

    Unlike Ewart’s, the poem seems to have a strictly sadistic situation in mind — not the partly utilitarian one, although this may be splitting hairs a bit.

    In any event, the published version sets up the charge of cowardice very well.

    I’m glad to learn its publication history, and surprised it dropped out. Could he have lost sight of it?

    Anyway, a few disconnected thoughts, but I’m very glad to have found another who sees what’s up with the changes from this version. Tx!

    • Posted July 17, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      The commentators who have been claiming that the first, more explicit, draft of ‘Atrocities’ is a better poem than the final version seem to me to fundamentally misunderstand Sassoon as a poet.
      Colloquial understatement is essential, surely to most of Sassoon’s best work.
      ‘The General’, for example, originally ended with ‘he murdered them both with his plan of attack.’ This is very explicit, and a bit hysterical, easy to answer against. The later version, the sardonic ‘he did for them both’ is not only unpreachy, but opens up wider possibilities. Was this general incompetent? Was he sacrificing these men for the sake of others? Or is it a criticism of war in general – where every plan will involve the death of some people, however cheery the general? ‘Murdered’ tells the reader, who then can only accept or reject. ‘Did for them both’, by its understatement, makes the reader think.
      My favourite Sassoon slangy understatement is the last line of ‘To any Dead Officer’: ‘I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.’ the slangy ‘decent show’ not only reaffirms the poet and officer as members of the same language-community, but brings in all the connotations of ‘decent’. It is his way of telling us that the – ‘show’ in which the officer died was actually indecent. Once again the reader is being made to do the work.

      • absconn
        Posted July 18, 2014 at 12:37 am | Permalink

        Quite — the “The General” charge is just as you say. It’s simply not murder, as there is no crime involved, so it’s bad writing, and as you say easily dismissed, and also as you say, not his more understated style, which fit his class and educational background.

        I think any writer would recognize those changes for what they were.

        Thanks! The best thing about the story for me was drawing me to this poem of his, which I didn’t know (and inviting me to think about it carefully).

  4. absconn
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    Btw, have you seen a text of this draft, or transcribed the read version? The BBC story, recent, suggested that the reader interpolated some words, so….

  5. Roger Allen
    Posted October 20, 2021 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    “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”

    Might this explain why Dominion forces had a reputation for not taking prisoners and killing those they took? Much of their pre-WWI military experience would have been in colonial wars, where there were no conventions governing the treatment of prisoners and – given the small size of the armies involved – often no way to keep prisoners. Old customs could persist.

    • Posted October 20, 2021 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      I’m sure you’re right. Stephen Graham, writing of the Scots Guards, whose very tough ethos included the idea that ‘A good soldier was one who would not take a prisoner.’ notes that while all the men talked like this, ‘It was curious, however, that in battle itself there was more squeamishness about brutality in actuality than there had been in conversation. The old hands, the men who had the regimental tone, were equal to their words, but the younger and newer ones hardly liked it.’
      In other words, even in a regiment that trained its men in an uncompromisingly warlike spirit, the wartime volunteers and conscripts still remained a strong trace of being civilians in uniform.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] that the Australian and Canadian soldiers responsible for the killings of German prisoners were ‘renowned as the most effective soldiers under British command’.[6] Canadian troops became notorious for their ruthless efficiency ‘as trench raiding’s most […]

  2. […] by the fact that the Canadian forces became renowned, or perhaps notorious, for their ruthless efficiency during the First World War. It is interesting to speculate on how L.M. Montgomery, who in Rilla […]

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