Soldiers Dont Go Mad

Poet by Day, Sick by Night

Every summer before the war, Siegfried Sassoon had gloried in playing cricket. Yet, at Craiglockhart, he shunned team sports and clubs. His only athletic pursuits were golf and leaping alone “like a young ram” over the Pentland ridges. At the end of his first week, he wrote to Ottoline Morrell, “My fellow-patients are 160 more or less dotty officers. A great many of them are degenerate looking.” One had committed suicide. Estranged from the other inmates, Sassoon cherished his time with [Dr. William Halse Rivers] Rivers, “a sensible man who doesn’t say anything silly.” Rivers assured him he was sane, albeit with one abnormality: opposition to the war. Yet, Sassoon wrote to Ottoline, the doctor’s pro-war arguments “don’t make any impression on me.”

He used the evening sessions with Rivers “to give my anti-war complex an airing.” Doctor and patient debated the war’s rights and wrongs, neither making headway with the other. Among discussion topics were European politicians’ declarations as translated in The Cambridge Magazine. Sassoon maintained the statesmen, far from waging defensive war, sought to annex territory from Germany and its allies. France wanted Alsace and the portions of Lorraine that Germany had seized in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. The Kingdom of Italy had joined the war in April 1915 to acquire chunks of Austria-Hungary. Britain coveted German colonies in Africa. The May 1916 Sykes-Picot accord dividing the Ottoman Empire among France, Britain, and Russia would have bolstered Sassoon’s case had it not been an official secret. Rivers argued that Germany would not negotiate. Its military and political leaders were as determined as Britain’s to fight until victory, despite the stasis of the trenches, the daily death toll, and the calamitous offensives. Like the belligerent nations, Rivers and Sassoon stuck to their positions without breakthrough or compromise.

Rivers accused Sassoon of inconsistency: his intellect was “suffering from trench fever” and his protest’s inspiration was more emotional than moral. Moreover, peace without Germany’s outright defeat would “nullify all the sacrifices we had made.” Sassoon answered, “It doesn’t seem to me to matter much what one does so long as one believes it is right!” As soon as the words were out, he regretted his “particularly fatuous” remark.

Rivers diagnosed Sassoon’s anxiety as stemming from the deaths of friends and of men in his platoon: “His view differs from that of the ordinary pacifist in that he would no longer object to the continuance of the War if he saw any reasonable prospect of a rapid conclusion.”

Sassoon suggested articles and books to Rivers, among them one of the first novels by a frontline soldier, Henri Barbusse’s Sur le Feu. The English translation, Under Fire, had just appeared in Britain. Barbusse fought in a French regiment for seventeen months as a poilu, “hairy” enlisted man, until gas-damaged lungs took him out of the war. His novel exposed the degradation of working-class troops caught between their officers and the enemy in a “troglodyte world.” Barbusse became a pacifist, whose works circulated in antiwar circles. Under Fire enlightened Rivers, who had not experienced life and death in the trenches as Sassoon had…

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