Saturday 3 December 2016

Poetry - Anthony Cronin: The General, Siegfried Sassoon

The General

Anthony Cronin

Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30

English poet and novelist Siegfried Sassoon (1886 - 1967) in army uniform. Photo by George C Beresford/Getty Images.
English poet and novelist Siegfried Sassoon (1886 - 1967) in army uniform. Photo by George C Beresford/Getty Images.

What immediately impresses about Siegfried Sassoon's poem is its controlled brutality, assisted by the expert versification and its finally conclusive rhyme. The Battle of Arras, fought in April to May of 1917, and centred around the Northern French town, was one of the last great set-piece battles of the First World War.

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It was planned as the big push which was going to win the war, and within 48 hours. However it took the usual pattern - spectacular gains in the first couple of days, followed by stalemate.

What ground was gained was of little strategic point and the initial push was succeeded by the all too familiar stagnation and immobility of trench warfare.

Savage as Sassoon's poem is it is no more so than the battle or its object. The number of casualties is uncertain but they amounted to around a quarter of a million between both sides. The purpose of the battle is no less vague.

The General

Siegfried Sassoon

'Good-morning; good-morning!' the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

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.

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