Teaching Sassoon

sassoon guide

In the fight for Bazentin Ridge:

Was Sassoon/Sherston’s capture of the trench a reckless and lucky achievement (Sherston); a splendid act of bravery (Regimental records); or a ‘futile gesture’ (Graves)? Do you have a fourth opinion?
Was Sherston justified in disobeying orders?
Once he had captured the trench, should he have consolidated it?

Those are good questions, and fairly typical of what a new teacher’s guide to Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer thinks that A-level students should be asking themselves when they read the book.
It is produced by Zigzag Education, and is one of a series on English literature set books (though Zigzag produces material for other subjects as well.
The guide to Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is fairly recent, I think, and the company has kindly sent me a copy for review.

It is a pack of 128 loose A4 pages in a plastic envelope – printed on just one side and loose, I suppose, to make photocopying easier (though I think I would have preferred a book – which would not really be difficult to copy, and would not get out of order).
That’s a quibble, though, and the text, by P. Rapley, is rather good. It supplies the obligatory chapter summaries, but these often go beyond mere précis to point towards interesting critical issues. There are commentaries on points of interest, and explanations of historical background, and more suggestions for activities than a teacher could ever use. These include essay topics, spurs to creative writing, topics for discussion and debate and themes for role-play exercises. There is also a pretty difficult quiz, glossaries of military and literary terms, and a guide to Army ranks and units. (When I marked A-Level WW1 literature for AQA, ranks were a source of real confusion to many candidates – I’d recommend sticking a photocopy of these pages on the class notice-board.)
What I like about the pack, though, is that it consistently urges the student to look beyond the surface meaning of what it accurately describes as ‘Sassoon’s seemingly artless prose’. It questions Sassoon’s self-presentation as Sherston, and compares the novel’s text with Sassoon’s diaries, with his poems, with later autobiographies like Siegfried’s Journey, and with other accounts of the Royal Welch Regiment’s activities. In other words, it wants to stop the student taking the text for granted. We are reminded that Sassoon’s language is very often ironical, and sometimes slippery. We are asked to think about what he is not saying.
Were I teaching Sassoon’s novel for A-level, I’d be very glad to have a copy of this pack to help me. There are some activities suggested here that I wouldn’t bother with, but there are plenty to choose from, and any teacher worth his or her salt will use those listed here as suggestions only.
I think that the author understands A-level students. There is an assignment set on the episode where Sherston is examined by a ‘supposedly sadistic doctor’, who tries to squash his hopes of a lengthy convalescence in the country. The assignment asks for an ‘Empathetic Composition’:

Put yourself in the place of the doctor whom Sherston describes in this section.
In character and without irony, write an account of a series of consultations you hold with recuperating officers. [….] Use your empathetic imagination – don’t go for satire or cheap shots.

This reminded me of some of my brightest A-level students when I was a teacher, and some of the scripts I marked as an examiner. Sassoon’s ironic and oppositional voice is an attractive one for clever students, who want to use it themselves (maybe not realising that, a century on, taking a superior attitude towards the War is a very easy option, and will indeed tempt them towards ‘cheap shots’). Getting the students to see that there are other possibilities – yes, that is what an A-level teacher ought to be doing.


  1. Posted October 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    The sadistic doctor episode in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is very interesting, not least because it appears to be an invention. A letter in the Sassoon collection at the Harry Ransom Center shows that he arrived at Chapelwood Manor on Thursday 10 May 1917, not on the 12th, as Hart-Davis incorrectly asserts (Diaries, p. 163, n3). This was two days after the publication of The Old Huntsman and one day after Sassoon lunched with Arnold Bennett and J.C. Squire at the Reform. Sassoon moved directly from Denmark Hill to Chapelwood Manor. Was the sadistic doctor story one he heard from a comrade and worked in to his fictionalised autobiography? Or was it something that happened to him at another time that he re-located? (He conflates his response to Massingham’s The Nation with his response to Wells’ Mr Britling Sees It Through in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer – perhaps because Wells’ novel was originally serialized in The Nation.)

    • Posted October 14, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      Good point, rubinsteinfan, and one that points up the slippery nature of this text. If it’s a novel, the invention is legitimate; if it’s a memoir, one has cause for complaint.
      And maybe more so because Sassoon himself set so much store by accuracy, which he used as a criterion for judging other books. As Jean M. Wilson says, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front irritated him not just because of its sensationalism, but also because it gave “no place names”, left “everything vague”.’
      But it’s maybe his ambiguities and contradictions that make Sassoon such a fascinating writer.

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