Nothing but Sass(oon)

by I.A. Isherwood

Today we tackled one of my favorite books, Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. The second volume of his Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, this book was written at the height of the ‘war books boom’ in Britain in the late 1920s when some of the best literature of WWI was published. Sassoon’s trilogy is fictionalized autobiography, but very (very) close to the man’s actual experiences fighting as a British officer in the First World War. It is a classic for a reason.

Why did I choose Sassoon? I picked three memoirs for this class (French, British, and German). I wanted to pick something that we could discuss both in terms of lived war experience, but also, national memories of the war. Sassoon’s memoir is both readable and interesting on both points: his war experience being one of frustrated heroism that came to a head with his famous protest in 1917. Since the 1930s, he has been regarded as one of the great interpreters of British war experiences (for good or ill). So there is a lot we can do with the text.

I also picked it because it for a very personal reason. This was one of ‘those books’ that changed my life the first time I read it in 1998 as an undergraduate. I was a Junior Year Abroad student at King’s College, London in their Department of War Studies. I read Sassoon as part of our ‘Experience of War’ class. At that time, I had read Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory and works by the iconic British war poets, but I hadn’t really read much in terms of WWI memoirs (I made up for this later). Sassoon changed all of that. I became fascinated with the British experience of WWI, in part, because I read this book at an important time of life.

So I wanted to teach the book to students who are the same age that I was the first time I read it.

Today was a discussion class, which just meant that I gave them fifteen minutes of contextual background before we discussed the book as a group. I blathered on a bit about Sassoon’s life and the details of the publication. Then I opened up the forum for their observations for the next hour. There wasn’t a dull moment (for me at least). Here are some of the major themes of our discussion:

  • Cowardice, Heroism, and Memory: In short, how Sassoon viewed the notion of heroism during the war contrasted with how he examined it later. There is a really interesting scene he constructs where he details seeing Jenkins, a nervous subaltern, paralyzed by his fear in the corner of a dugout (pg. 55 of the Penguin edition). Sassoon had little pity for his condition at the time, but recalled in memory, how he understood his plight afterwards. We batted this notion around a bit and discussed the difficulties in measuring memory sources written after the war vs. wartime memories. We also talked a bit about Sassoon’s own heroic streak, which is important for understanding his later protest against the war.
  • Sassoon’s eccentricities: The book has no shortage of peculiar moments. Sassoon rushing at Germans with bombs in his hands and pins in his teeth; plenty of material details about pipe smoking, wine drinking, flowers and birds; a discussion of every book he read in the trenches (mostly Thomas Hardy); fox hunting and horses. We discussed how he created his own character in the book and the broader themes he was hoping to show by doing so (mostly pastoral with all the fox hunting). Students brought up Sassoon’s sense of ‘nobility’ or his gentlemanly characteristics, which they sensed (I think accurately) as a type of archaism.
  • Sassoon’s protest: We spent a good part of the conversation discussing his protest against the war in 1917. The students had a lot of sympathy for him and discussed how it is easy to imagine anyone making such a statement. But then things got a bit nuanced and some students, who had read about the context around his protest, began noting how he was influenced by prominent pacifists at the time. We then dissected the statement itself and discussed whether it was a good argument (or not) against the war’s continuation. One student called it a bit of a ‘feral’ statement, or one that seemed a rough reaction to events, but not a rational statement based on evidence. I found this all very interesting and I was reassured by the level of back and forth that the students understood the core issues at play.

I concluded the class by asking what the book said about the memory of the war in Britain (if anything). One student summarized the book in the context of another: if Barbusse represents French human sacrifice in the trenches, he said,  then Sassoon represents British ideological sacrifice during the war. In short, that through this book we can understand something of how Britons felt about the war as it was ongoing and afterwards: patriotic volunteerism, stoic endurance, soul-searching questioning of the war’s worth in light of the sacrifice of so many lives. Another student said he got a better understanding of the notion of ‘endurance’ from the book; that Sassoon confronted the horrors of war with a sense of dignity and honor even after witnessing what he did. Spirited, lively, and informative – a good day in History 219.

Students: if you have more to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.