The War In Between
War Poems by Siegfried Sassoon
This year marks the centenary of America’s involvement in the Great War. It is often neglected in popular media, sandwiched as it is between the American Civil War and WWII. But in recent years, due in no small part to centennial commemorations in Britain and Canada, more books and documentaries have emerged to fill the gaps of our collective memory. They are long overdue.
The Great War, when scholars can agree, was born of several causes. And yet, not one of them seems to justify the carnage that followed. Millions killed, landscapes seared and scarred, and a world that once seemed to be on a recognizable course was torn apart. The conflict did, however, spawn a literary phenomenon known as the War Poets. War and poetry, going back to the Iliad, often go hand-in-hand. But something was different about this war, and about these poets. It is why they are still read today. They have a particular poignancy, an urgency even, emanating from lives lived so closely to death. And not death merely, but sinister, shocking, and mechanized deaths such as the world had never seen.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) survived the war. Barely. But thanks to his fiction and poetry we are able to have some sense of the devastation he and many others experienced. He ranges from life in the trenches to grisly death in battle to being fully awake to the beauty of the countryside. He is not without humor, though, as he once said “As regards being dead, however, one of my main consolations has always been that I have the strongest intention of being an extremely active ghost. Let nobody make any mistake about that.” In the lines below, he writes of a world few of us have seen. He reminds us that the history of the war is not about battles and statistics, but about each human person.
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.