We made our way across the sodden mess
of souls the rain beat down, and when our steps
fell on a body, they sank through the emptiness.
- Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, Canto VI (translated by John Ciardi)
Much about Siegfried Sassoon’s wartime poetry suggests that he’d traveled through the depths of a Dantean pastiche. Yet, despite being clearly affected by his experiences in the muddy trenches of The Great War (and in which he was twice wounded), he lived a long life—the literary prime of which was wrought out of such times. The sense of multi-persona living that Sassoon inhabited is shown in the names of two memoirs he penned: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930).
In April of 1917 when Siegfried Sassoon returned to England from the front lines of World War I, he brought with him two important career-influencing effects: the Military Cross and a sense of disenfranchisement by shellshock. In the poems he would subsequently write about his experiences, images of death and dehumanization prompted by mechanized warfare were prevalent. Most aptly hellish are his descriptions of the mutilated human form.
In “The Rear Guard” (1917), Sassoon describes the frustration of a soldier navigating through the postscripts of battle. The second stanza:
Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw some one lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug,
And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.
‘I’m looking for headquarters.’ No reply.
‘God blast your neck!’ (For days he’d had no sleep)
‘Get up and guide me through this stinking place.’
Savage, he kicked a soft unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.
Sassoon’s description shows the state of the soldier. The figure is “Groping along the tunnel, step by step” (in the first stanza), and “Alone he staggered on…” (in the third stanza). These phrases point toward a physical and psychological detachment, well known effects of intense combat. (This is a theme that was alluded to in my previous post discussing Sally Carrol’s predicament in Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace”). Normal sensibility and judgment are stripped; basic survival is priority; the human form becomes something as mud to be treaded upon, “muttering creatures.” This intimate understanding of an isolation from the normal leads me to believe that Sassoon experienced these feelings and psychological effects.
Sassoon’s style was sardonic at times, and showed an awareness of the dichotomies that pitted the ideals versus the realities of war; in “They” the Bishop notes after seeing the deformed bodies of the wounded, “The ways of God are strange!” Sassoon always attempted to reveal a learned-by-combat truth, perhaps one only learned therein.
“The General” (1917) shows Sassoon’s disdain for the military leadership:
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.
Of course, Sassoon is referring here to the wasteful way in which human and equipment capital were deployed by the generals. World War I is generally thought of as one in which the technologies had surpassed the strategies, leading to such stalemates as were experienced in the trench-fields of Europe.
Sassoon’s criticism of the ideals held by the citizenries of each side is evident in “Glory of Women” (1917)—which shows an acceptance of malleability as a way to describe the negatives of the war:
You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.
Commentary on the warped human and domestic forms is not unique to Sassoon.
Erich Maria Remarque’s scathing novel of the romanticization and realities of World War I, Im Westen Nichts Neues (1927), gives a picture of a group of Germans affected by the war. (Im Westen Nichts Neues is transliterated from German to “In the West Nothing New” but was popularized—and is known in English—as All Quiet on the Western Front). Here, the strength of autobiographical reflection is made through statements such as “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.” Remarque fought for the Germans and was wounded in the war.
One scene in his book describes an advance on a German position by French troops:
We recognize the smooth distorted faces, the helmets: they are French. They have already suffered heavily when they reach the remnants of the barbed wire entanglements. A whole line has gone down before our machine-guns; then we have a lot of stoppages and they come nearer.
I see one of them, his face upturned, fall into a wire cradle. His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.
In 1930, Lewis Milestone adapted the book for film:
The students clear out of the classroom as they join the parade going on in the street. Milestone—and Remarque—offered substantive coverage to the soldier’s experience off as much as on the front lines. Image taken from Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.
“Why did you risk your life bringing him in?”
“But it’s Behm! My friend…”
“It’s a corpse, no matter who it is.”
The recently recruited young men are in stark contrast to those affected by time spent in the trenches. Image taken from Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Retrospectively, the 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is surprisingly realistic and violent for its time. In this image, the battle recounted by Remarque is presented in full effect by Milestone. Decapitation and dismemberment serve to separate and unravel the fibers of normal psychosocial constructs.
The main character visits home. Here, he is shown to be an avid lepidopterist. By this time in the story, he has matured, but his family and former school teacher hold on to an unshakable idealism.
The main character’s—and the movie’s—final moments are a clear indictment of the senselessness of the war. Image taken from Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.
1. Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Signet Classic, 2001.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front. Dir. Lewis Milestone. Perf. Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray. Universal Pictures, 1930. DVD.
3. Remarque, Maria Erich. All Quiet on the Western Front. Trans. A. W. Wheen. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1975.
4. Sassoon, Siegfried. “The Rear-Guard.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1961.
5. Sassoon, Siegfried. “The General.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1961-1962.
6. Sassoon, Siegfried. “The Glory of Women.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1962.
7. Sassoon, Siegfried. “They.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1960-1961.