Today is Armistice Day. It doesn’t seem appropriate to dwell here on how powerfully affecting I find the Great War and the poetry that came out of those bloody years. Instead I’ll point you to The First World War Poetry Archive, an amazing online collection of manuscripts, photos, and other artifacts and echoes of the war and the people who fought and died in it.
The archive, which is hosted at Oxford University but draws on other archives as well, has just launched its Siegfried Sassoon Collection. Here’s one of my favorite passages from Robert Graves’s memoir Good-Bye to All That, in which he tells a story about Sassoon, poetry, and battlefield heroics:
The Battalion’s next objective was ‘The Quadrangle,’ a small copse this side of Mametz Wood, where Siegfried distinguished himself by taking, single-handed, a battalion frontage which the Royal Irish Regiment had failed to take the day before. He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he finally went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz Wood had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. “British patrols” were Siegfried and his book of poems. “I’d have got you a D.S.O. if only you’d shown more sense,” stormed Stockwell.
If you go here, you’ll find a link to an audio file of Sassoon reading his Armistice poem “Everyone Sang”:
…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.
Sassoon outlasted the War by decades. He died in 1967 at the age of 80.
That is one of my favorite war anecdotes of all time!
I know–talk about panache. Probably kept him sane, too. (“Sane” being a relative term.)