The Pity of War: The Loves and Lives of the War Poets

Over 50-years on, the poet Siegfried Sassoon was still haunted by his experiences in the First World War. He was never able to get over the horror that war inflicted on him and his fellow soldiers. 

“I remember a man with his jaw blown off by a bomb. A fine looking chap he was they said. He lay there with one hand groping at the bandages, which covered his whole head and face, gurgling every time he breathed. His tongue was tied forward to prevent him swallowing it. The War had gagged him – smashed him – and other people looked at him and tried to forget what they’d seen…All this I remember while the desirable things of life, like living phantoms, steal quietly into my brain, look wistfully at me, and steal away again.”
Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)
Starring John Hurt, this one-off special, The Pity of War, throws a new light on the First World War poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, and using their diaries and letters, the inside story of their war is told – in their own words.
The three young men are all budding poets, thrown together in battle. All three are also secretly gay – and they will soon lose their boyish innocence in the trenches. On the front line an officer’s life expectancy is barely six weeks, and they all struggle to cope with the magnitude of the slaughter around them, dealing with it in very different ways. Together they give a voice to the rage of a generation.
At the heart of the film is the story of Sassoon and Owen’s close relationship, told in their own words through their passionate correspondence.
Hurt plays Sassoon in the 1960s, in the twilight years of his life. He is haunted by his experiences in the trenches and cannot overcome the grief of losing the love of his life. He provides the backbone to the film as it flashes back with him to his younger self, played by Morgan Watkins (The Hour). Wilfred Owen is played by Matthew Beard (The Imitation Game, One Day and An Education) and Robert Graves is played by Joe Claflin (Game of Thrones).
The film looks at how, in August of 1914, 28-year-old Siegfried Sassoon, the son of a wealthy banker with a passion for poetry and someone looking for a deeper meaning to life, enlisted to fight for his country as Britain declared war on Germany. His poem ‘Absolution’ captured the anticipation in the air.
It was not long after Sassoon arrived at an officer’s training camp that he met a kindred spirit – David ‘Tommy’ Thomas, with whom Sassoon became besotted. After waiting almost a year to be sent to the front, the call came. Sassoon found out, to his joy, that he and Tommy would be heading to France together, with the 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers.
By sheer coincidence, in his first week with the Fusiliers, Sassoon met another officer given to writing poetry – Captain Robert Graves.
Graves was reportedly awkward and abrasive around the other men, yet he was one of only five officers to have survived the disastrous Battle of Loos. Although he was nine years younger than Sassoon, Graves was by far the more experienced soldier. Though Sassoon’s innocence was soon broken when he reached the frontline.
Whilst all around them lives were being lost daily in numbers never known before, Sassoon had frequent premonitions about losing those close to him. In his poem ‘The Dug Out’, he wrote about a vision that his beloved Tommy would be one of them.
Sadly, the very next day Sassoon heard the news he’d been dreading. Tommy had been killed, hit in the throat by a rifle bullet while out with the wiring party. Sassoon struggled to hide his true feelings from those around him, and Tommy’s death transformed Sassoon’s attitude towards the War.
He said: “I used to say I couldn’t kill anyone in this war; but since they shot Tommy I would gladly stick a bayonet into a German by daylight. Someone told me a year ago that hate, love, and sorrow, were things I had never known (things which every poet should know!). Now I’ve known love for Tommy, and grief, hate has come also, and the lust to kill.”
Graves said: “Siegfried distinguished himself by taking, single-handedly, a battalion frontage that the Royal Irish Regiment had failed to take the day before. He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire, 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.”
Sassoon’s heroic, and often eccentric behaviour, earned him the nickname ‘Mad Jack’. He won the Military Cross for bringing in a wounded lance corporal from a mine-crater close to the German lines under heavy fire.
July 1st 1916 saw day one of the Battle of the Somme, and some 60,000 casualties, a third of them fatal. It was slaughter on a mass scale and the start of a four-month battle.
On July 20th that year Robert Graves was seriously injured during an attack in a French village and he was taken to the army dressing station. The next morning Sassoon was informed of his friend’s death.
However, reports proved to be somewhat premature as Graves had in fact survived the attack, as he wrote:
“My dear Sassoon, I hope you haven’t taken the casualty lists seriously again. They are fools. I’m as right as rain and hope before many days to be up again basking in the sun. The rumour of my death was started by the regimental doctor swearing I couldn’t possibly live – but it takes a lot to kill Youth and Ugliness, however easily Youth and Beauty fade and die.  Yours very affectionately, Robert. By the way, I died on my 21st birthday. I can never grow up now.”
In the trenches the slaughter was relentless, and Sassoon’s physical and mental health started to suffer. He expressed his daily reality in the poem ‘The Rear-guard’.
Then in April 1917, as Sassoon’s unit was fighting in the Battle of Scarpe, he was hit between the shoulders by a German sniper. He survived and was sent back to home to England to convalesce.
Despite being a decorated war hero, he made his disillusionment clear in poems like ‘Suicide in the Trenches’. Sassoon was determined to do something to express his rage – though neither his front-line service nor his poetry were enough; he wanted to make a public stand.
Sassoon wrote a letter outlining his intention to refuse to perform any further military duties as a protest against what he claimed was the policy of the Government in prolonging the War by failing to state their conditions of peace. Graves pleaded with the authorities not to take disciplinary action against Sassoon, arguing that he was actually suffering from shell shock and should be brought in front of a special medical board.
So Sassoon found himself sent off to a psychiatric hospital to be ‘cured’ – to Craiglockhart Military Psychiatric Hospital, in Edinburgh. Yet far from silencing Sassoon, a chance encounter at the hospital would produce some of the greatest anti-war poetry in the English language.
In July 1917, a fellow patient at the hospital was a young second Lieutenant from Shropshire, sent there after a nervous breakdown, a result of being blown high into the air by a trench mortar and spending several days lying in a hole looking at the remains of a fellow officer.
The nervous 24-year-old was Wilfred Owen. His stammer prevented him from speaking fully about his experience in the trenches, but he was able to express himself through writing – having been doing so since he was 10.
Owen found comfort in reading the work one of his favourite writers, one Siegfried Sassoon, whose poems had recently been published in a collection called ‘The Old Huntsman’.
Owen commented: “I have just been reading Siegfried Sassoon, and am feeling at a very high pitch of emotion. Nothing like his trench life sketches has ever been written or ever will be written. Shakespeare reads vapid after these.”
Owen was amazed to discover that his hero was in fact a fellow patient at the hospital, though it took him a while to eventually pluck up the courage to knock on Sassoon’s door.
A very close bond grew between the two men as they spent much of their time together, with Sassoon toughening up Owen’s writing style.
In September 1917, Owen wrote the first draft of a poem he called ‘Dead Youth’, ultimately retitled as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ with the input of Sassoon.
Over the course of three months in Craiglockhart, Owen wrote 20 poems, almost half of his entire work, and encouraged by Sassoon, he planned to try and get his first book of poems published. He would later write this preface:
“This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except war.  Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”
By this point in time, Sassoon and Owen had become inseparable, but this period of contentment was about to come to an abrupt end.
On Saturday 29th October 1917, Owen wrote to inform his mother, Susan, that he was to be boarded the following Tuesday and sent away. He tells her that he is rather upset about it, especially as he is so happy with Sassoon. He tells her that he spent all of the previous day with him…breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.
Despite his sadness, Owen felt it his duty as a poet to return to the front line and record the suffering and courage of his fellow soldiers. Siegfried was left not knowing when he would see Wilfred again.
As the War approached its fourth year, Siegfried Sassoon was still stuck in Craiglockhart Psychiatric hospital. His soul mate and fellow poet Wilfred Owen remained at home in Shrewsbury, waiting for his call to the front.
Wilfred wrote the following words to Siegfried:
“Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor. What’s that mathematically? In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least. You have fixed my life – however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze.”
Sassoon felt increasingly torn between leaving Owen and others to fight on, and his own anti-war stance. He said: “My position here is nearly unbearable, and the feeling of isolation makes me feel rotten. I will go back to France if they will send me. I would rather be anywhere than here.”
In the May of 1918, Sassoon finally returned to France, having answered an urgent call for British reinforcements, as the Germans looked set to break the Allied line.
Despite having been made a Company Commander, Sassoon was as reckless as ever, and almost immediately after he arrived he was shot again, this time in the head, by friendly fire after one of his own snipers mistook him for a German.
Though the War was now over for Sassoon, Owen was finally sent back to the front line. There he wrote some of his most subversive and visceral poems, with the most famous of all his poems coming to define the First World War: ‘Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori’, translated as ‘It is sweet and right to die for your country.’
By now the War had been going on for four long years, but by September 1918 the tide had turned, and the British counter offensive drove the Germans back from their spring gains. At last victory was in sight, but at a high human cost. In his letters home from the front, Owen put on a brave face:
“Dearest Mother. I have been in action for some days. I lost all my earthly faculties, fought like an angel and captured a German Machine Gun and scores of prisoners. I have been recommended for the Military Cross; and have recommended every single N.C.O. who was with me! My nerves are in perfect order. I came out in order to help these boys — directly by leading them as well as an officer can.”
However, Owen saved his true feelings for Sassoon:
“The Battalion had a sheer time last week. I can find no better epithet: because I cannot say I suffered anything; having let my brain grow dull. It is a strange truth: that your Counter-Attack frightened me much more than the real one: though the boy by my side, shot through the head, lay on top of me, soaking my shoulder, for half an hour. I shall feel again as soon as I dare, but now I must not.”
On November 11th 1918, the Great War ended, as Germany, bereft of manpower and supplies and faced with imminent invasion, signed an armistice agreement with the Allies.
In Shrewsbury, as the Armistice bells rang, Susan Owen received a telegram. It informed her that her son, Wilfred Owen, had been one of the last casualties of German machine guns, just a week earlier, on the 4th November. He was 25-years-old.
Siegfried later said:
“After the Armistice I waited to hear from him, not daring to ask myself, during those weeks of lively distraction, why no letter arrived. Several months elapsed before I was told about his death. I have never been able to accept that disappearance philosophically. A blank miserable sense of deprivation has dulled my mind whenever I have thought of him, and even now it has needed an effort of will to describe our friendship. Recognition of his poetry has steadily increased; but the chasm in my private existence remains.”
Wilfred Owen’s poetry only became widely popular in the 1960s, and today he is considered Britain’s greatest war poet.
Robert Graves survived the War and became a prolific historical writer. He died in 1985 aged 90.
Siegfried Sassoon continued to write after Wilfred’s death, but he was ultimately defined by his wartime experience and endlessly returned to his past. He died in 1967 aged 80.
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