Siegfried Sassoon: after war, a new world?

Submitted by martin on 29 August, 2009 - 10:23 Author: Cathy Nugent

Siegfried Sassoon is best known as a “war poet” of the First World War. But after the war he became involved in the Labour Party, and covered union issues as a journalist. He was the literary editor of the Labour newspaper Daily Herald for a brief period in 1919, and continued to write poetry.

Before the end of the war Sassoon was converted to leftist and anti-war politics by H G Wells and other literary lefts. In 1917 he refused to return to the front, writing an anti-war manifesto, Declaration Against War. “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

Sassoon avoided otherwise certain court martial after an intervention from his friend Robert Graves. Instead he was pronounced to have had a nervous breakdown (how else to explain being against the war?), and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for officers. But, feeling guilty at leaving behind men under his command to die in and outside the trenches, he returned to active service.

Sassoon’s post-war poems dealt with his and other veterans’ attitudes towards the war and the peace, the new conditions of exploitation created by the capitalist class in the 1920s. Britain was in no way the “land fit for heroes” promised by Lloyd George. The veterans faced unemployment, homelessness, and no state help if they were disabled.

Such conditions gave rise to a veterans’ movement; one veterans’ group was the National Union of Ex-Servicemen. Their manifesto clearly identified their cause with that of the broader working-class movement: “We are ex-Service men, but we are also Workers, and we realise that our general interests are identical with that of our fellow workers.”

Sassoon was a fellow-traveller in the left of the movement. Less than a decade after the end of the war, the politics of the veterans’ movement (and of Sassoon) became more moderate. For those still involved, it became less about fighting for better conditions (eg. pensions), and more about coming together to share wartime experiences. Groups like the British Legion, conservative and patriotic, came to dominate.

In the few years immediately following the war, however, there was a political contest between the left and the right in the veterans’ movement. Some of that was promoted by people like ILP leader Philip Snowden, who as a pacifist had opposed the 1914-18 war. Sassoon helped Snowden in his campaign for re-election in Blackburn in 1918 (which he lost).

In To Those Who Fight for Labour, published in the Daily Herald on 4 January 1919, Sassoon recalls the electoral defeat of the previous month and looks forward to future success.

The poem, Everyone Sang (April 1919) is according to the poet, a vision of the socialist revolution. Possibly one can see how Sassoon, who came from a very wealthy background, does not, even then, entirely identify with the labour and socialist causes; nonetheless the poems express the mood of the time — when ordinary soldiers, returning from the barbarism of war, wanted to fight for a better world.

Cathy Nugent

To Those Who Fight for Labour

Now when the shouting and the strife are ended
And each man’s voice upon the darkness dies,
Remember you have toiled for something splendid
And keep the vision stainless in your eyes:
Be faithful to yourselves and those you fought for —
Great hearts and general hopes and patient hands:
Swear that you’ll never lose the ends you’ve sought for
Till Brotherhood unites the martyred lands.
Now when Reaction’s blood-stained flags deride you
And the old ignorant gods for an hour prevail,
All that is noble and strong is ranked beside you
And you are crowned with victory though you fail.

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on-on-and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

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