Last week I wrote about our visit to the canal at Sambre-Oise Canal at Ors where the poet Wilfred Owen was killed. That same afternoon the Bird brothers took us to the Point 110 New Cemetery to talk about the poet Sigfried Sassoon. Sassoon was Owen’s poetic mentor during the war. It is well worth reading about their relationship and the influence Sassoon had on Owen’s poetry. Their experience in the war led to a poetry critical of the war. “Avoiding the sentimentality and jingoism of many war poets, Sassoon wrote of the horror and brutality of trench warfare and contemptuously satirized generals, politicians, and churchmen for their incompetence and blind support of the war. Their view was vastly different from that of the jingoists like Kipling and Rupert Brooke.” Avoiding the sentimentality and jingoism of many war poets, Sassoon wrote of the horror and brutality of trench warfare and contemptuously satirized generals, politicians, and churchmen for their incompetence and blind support of the war.
Both poets became widely read in the United States during the Vietnam War. I read them several years before while working on my master’s thesis.
At New Cemetery we stood before three graves, one next to the other. Tony and Nick described the significance.
“On March 18, 1916 (this, before the Battle of the Somme) Robert Graves and Sigfried Sassoon were devastated when, within a space of 24 hours, three subalterns were killed, 2nd Lt. David Thomas, Prichard, and Richardson. Sassoon was particularly upset at Thomas’ death, with whom he was clearly in love.” Le Cateau & The Somme: A Tour: Aug 25-28, 2014 by Antony and Nicholas Bird.
Sigfried Sassoon stood at the foot of the hole while three were buried. Thereafter, “He began to undertake dangerous duties, especially patrols, sometimes going into No Man’s Land. Sassoon became known as ‘Mad Jack.’”
The day before we toured the Military Museum in Peronne, France. I watched an official British Army film showing the burial of a dozen soldiers. Each was wrapped in a canvas shroud, the shroud tied with rope. With care, the bodies were handed from a couple of soldiers at the top of the dirt mound to those in the hole. Around the perimeter stood the comrades of those who had been killed.
I stood at the grave site of the three, too, and was moved to tears the second time that day. Sadness and grief. Folly and waste. Loss and useless sacrifice. Of course, the war finally ended. So that was a good thing. But what was gained and what was lost?
Afterward, the war officially spoken of in terms of the old jingoism—bravery, courage, sacrifice, and so on. As Kurt Vonnegut writes in Slaughterhouse Five, “So it goes.”
The General by Sigfried Sassoon
‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
There are many blogs I have written about characters and events in The Angel of Mons. I know you will enjoy reading them. You can get to all of them at my web site: jerredmetz.com.