HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Siegfried Sassoon, born 8 September 1886
A Working Party
Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.
Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.
A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.
Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.
He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.
That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.
He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.
Siegfried Sassoon was decorated for bravery and was one of the leading poets of WWI. He was the inspiration for one of the characters in Pat Barker’s excellent Regeneration trilogy of novels.
Sassoon grew disgusted with the war and became a pacifist – he bravely wrote a public letter defying military authority and condemning the government’s motives. They sent him off to hospital rather than court-martial him, and it is this time in his life which Pat Barker uses in her own novel.
Sassoon was a prolific writer – I remember enjoying his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. He died from stomach cancer one week before his 81st birthday, on 1 September 1967.
Have you read any of his work? Tell me in the comment area below.
Susannah Fullerton: WWI and Books
Poetry Foundation: Siegfried Sassoon
The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon by Siegfried Sassoon
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man: The Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon
Regeneration by Pat Barker
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