Sunday 25 March 2018

Ulick O'Connor: Soldier poet Siegfried Sassoon satirised hideous events of Battle of the Somme

English poet and novelist Siegfried Sassoon (1886 - 1967) in army uniform
English poet and novelist Siegfried Sassoon (1886 - 1967) in army uniform

Ulick O'Connor

Yesterday was the anniversary of the beginning of the most frightful carnage of the First World War, The Battle of the Somme.

It lasted four months and finished with 50,000 dead. Two thousand soldiers from the 36thUlster Division and 1,200 from the 16th Irish Division died in the battle. This is where Tom Kettle, former UCD professor, met his death bravely leading his troops, and whose statue you can see in St Stephen's Green today.

The legendary Father Willie Doyle of Clongowes Wood College was chaplain to the 48 Brigade of the 16th Irish Division. Later, he was awarded the Military Cross and recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross.

After the battle, Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, the poet who had won a Military Cross for gallantry, would conduct a fierce campaign against what he regarded as the wickedness of the war his country was fighting. Thought by many to be the best war poet among formidable rivals Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, he was confident of his right to savage the system as he did.

Sassoon, whose name sounds German but who was in fact an Englishman of landed gentry of many generations, used a familiar literary form to satirise these hideous events. Stripped of all romance, he produced the poem 'They' about the battle which sent shivers down the back of the many who had tried to guild it with glory.


The Bishop tells us: 'When the boys come back

'They will not be the same; for they'll have fought

'In a just cause: they lead the last attack

'On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought

'New right to breed an honourable race,

'They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.'

'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply.

'For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;

'Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;

'And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find

'A chap who's served that hasn't found some change.

'And the Bishop said: 'The ways of God are strange!'

Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967

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