The second volume of Siegfried Sassoon’s semi-autobiographical George Sherston trilogy picks up shortly after Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man: in 1916, with the young Sherston deep in the trenches of WWI. For his decorated bravery, and also his harmful recklessness, he is soon sent to the Fourth Army School for officer training, then dispatched to Morlancourt, a raid, and on through the Somme. After being wounded by a bullet through the lung, he returns home to convalesce, where his questioning of the war and the British Military establishment leads him to write a public anti-war letter. Through the help of close friend David Cromlech (based on Sassoon’s friend Robert Graves) a medical board decides not to prosecute, but instead deem him to be mentally ill, suffering from shell-shock, and sends him to a hospital for treatment. Sassoon’s stunning portrayal of a mind coming to terms with the brutal truths he has encountered in war—as well as his unsentimental, though often poetic, portrayal of class-defined life in England at wartime—is amongst the greatest books ever written about World War I, or war itself.
Siegfried Sassoon is my favourite war poet. I love the man. I’ve heard he was a bit of a monster to live with, which does come through in his work, but I’m enthralled by the way he writes. This “memoir” is set from 1915-1917 as “George Sherston” navigates the horror and trauma of the trenches.
I haven’t read the first section of these fictionalised memoirs, Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, because it really didn’t appeal to me and because this section is far more relevant to my needs. At first, I thought this might end up being a problem, but after some initial confusion over people who had obviously been introduced in the first book, I was fine. People come and go very quickly in this memoir.
When the blurb says this book is unsentimental, it means it. Sassoon frequently gets you to start liking a soldier he introduces, before giving you the details of their death at the end of the paragraph. It’s like being repeatedly punched in the stomach. To me, it shows his skill at grabbing the reader’s attention and emotions in a really short space of time, then twisting them. It’s written in a similar vein to his poetry, in many ways.
I found it interesting to see the war from a first person perspective of an Officer, who is quite tough but has sympathy for the men under his control. He feels for the dead German soldiers he comes into contact with, realising that they’re really no different to himself. He is also sympathetic to the mental anguish suffered by many of the men around him, though he maintains a tough stance. You can feel his frustration when he goes home to friends and family with a rosy view of the war, while he becomes increasingly disillusioned.
As this is a thinly veiled autobiography, it’s easy to spot the people he’s referring to. Cromlech is obviously Robert Graves, a man who Sassoon has really mixed feelings about. Having read Graves’ Goodbye to All That, it’s a stark contrast of opinion- Graves thought Sassoon was wonderful, while Sassoon says some rather harsh things about Cromlech/Graves.
I was repeatedly shocked by the honesty and horrific descriptions of war in this book. I’ve become used to many Modernist books that skirt around the issues rather than dealing with them head on. Sassoon barrels in headfirst, with descriptions like this:
“I can remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from the soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accusing gesture. Each time I passed that place the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the War. Who made the War? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud-stained mind. But I only laughed mentally, for my box of Stokes gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw. And the dead were the dead; this was no time to be pitying them or asking silly questions about their outraged lives. Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew. Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.”
I love how Sassoon deals with his anger about the war, his feelings towards the home front and the Army in this book. He is obviously still angry while he was writing, as he should be. I don’t blame him at all. He’s furious about the actions of the British Army generals, for making decisions that needlessly cost the lives of thousands of men. He’s hurt by the lack of understanding he encounters at home. He’s struggling to find a way to understand the deaths of the men around him, and how he is still living when they are dead. There are wonderful passages throughout about the futility of trench warfare, which are absolutely spot on and delivered in a wonderfully poetic way.
I wouldn’t recommend this to you if you’re a particularly squeamish individual, but if you’re okay with the quote above, you should be fine. Sassoon pulls no punches, but this gives the novel an extra dose of reality.
For me, it was a really nice change to read a war novel that wasn’t written in a Modernist style- the pages of this book practically turned themselves! This was an absolute treat, coming straight off reading Ford’s No More Parades!
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. There’s a few slow sections, but for the most part it goes along at a cracking pace. It’s likely that I’ll end up reading the third novel, as it deals with the time that Sherston spent in Craiglockhart hospital, getting treatment for his shell shock.
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