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'I Dreamed of a Sudden Death!': Passages from Siegfried Sassoon's Diaries

The haunting private thoughts of one of the twentieth century's best known English soldiers and poets

George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Just days before the one-hundredth anniversary of Britain's declaration of war on Germany on August 4, a firsthand account of the Great War and its aftermath from one of its best known soldiers and eyewitnesses is, for the first time, widely accessible. Today, the Cambridge University Digital Library Project made available dozens of Siegfried Sassoon's journals, encompassing thousands of pages that take the form of handwritten prose, poems, sketches, jots, and scribbles—all of which readers can flip through, virtually, on their computers.

Sassoon's records of life in the trenches range from the lyrical to the mundane. On a Saturday in late November, 1915, he wrote:

The moon shines through matchwood skeleton rafters of roofs up behind the trenches the frost bound morasses and ditches and old earthworks in the moonlight with dusky figures filing across the open, hobbling to avoid slipping, inhuman forms going to and from inhuman tasks.

His entry from two days later was far more blunt.

Went with working party 3 o'clock. Wet day. Awful mud up in the trenches. Tried to dig til 7.30 and came home soaked.

Many passages, like this one from December of 1915—in which Sassoon recounts a "quiet day" and gives a decidedly mixed review of his friend and fellow soldier Robert Graves's poetry—reveal the coexistence of excitement and fear, beauty and banality, in a soldier's life.

Quiet day. ... Tried to make black pony jump a ditch and failed utterly. Saw a heron, which sailed slowly away across the misty flats of ploughed land, gray, still evening, gleaming dykes, willows and poplars; a few lights here and there as we rode home, and flicker of star shells in the sky beyond Bethune—Robert Graves lent me his M.S. poems to read: some very bad, violent and repulsive. A few full of promise and real beauty. He ought'nt to publish yet. ... Moving again to-morrow. Very wet night. I dreamed of a sudden death!

The journals also include drafts of Sassoon's poems, some of which would never be published and others of which would go on to win acclaim. While he looked forward to the promise of life after war in some of his verse—"After the war I will be free to roam"—he frequently engaged directly, through his poetry, with the visceral horrors of the present, as in this excerpt:

Here life is proud, poised on the edge of doom,
Audacious, waiting to be whirled away
In enigmatic helplessness and gloom,
Its ruined flesh abandoned to decay.

Through poetry and prose alike, Sassoon's diaries provide an intimate look at the internal anguish he experienced. On a medical leave in August of 1916 for "trench fever," Sassoon confided, "Think I deserve a holiday, but feel rather rotten at forsaking the Batallion when I could have been fit for work in 3 or 4 weeks." He spent that period of convalescence reflecting on the war: One entry labeled "The soul of an officer: Notes for a satire" contains fragments by turns sardonic and earnestly contemplative. 

A night in the trenches. Winter and spring. Mud and whiskey. Letters home. Persecution by Colonel. Efforts to get sent home. Going sick. ... M.O. is callous behavior. Ugliness of the whole thing.
Psychology of myself: how the experience affects my character. Feeling of growth? 
Vivid incidents. Collecting souvenirs from dead Germans. Men dying from bullets in head.
Another day, he noted that "the conscientious, professional soldier is the dullest man on earth." Sassoon's sense of perspective on the war, however, did not save him from suffering from serious psychological hauntings when he was in the hospital in England, out of its midst.
My brain is screwed up like a tight wire. All day I have to talk to people about the war and answer the questions of friends, and getting excited and over strained saying things I never meant to. And when the lights are out, and the ward is half shadow and half glowing firelight ... then the horrors come creeping across the floor—the floor is littered with parcels of dead flesh and bones . ... These corpses are silent; they do not moan and bleat in the war-zone manner approved by the war-office. ... Here of course, there is no stench; the hospital authorities probably made that a stipulation when they admitted these intruders—I don't think they mean any harm to me. They are not here to scare me; they look at me reproachfully, because I am so lucky, with my safe wound—and this warm, kindly immunity of the hospital is what they longed for when they shivered and waited for the attack to begin or the brutal bombardment to cease.

Before he famously sent a declaration of his refusal to continue fighting in what he believed had become "a war of aggression and conquest," Sassoon jotted down points he wished to make in his diary, many in the form of questions:

Complacence not indifference? ... International aims? ... There is just as much militarism, bullying arrogance, and British lion-ishness among the Allies as in Germany.

He would later be declared mentally ill, a victim of "neurasthenia," and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for treatment from psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers ("I must never forget Rivers—He is the only man who can save me if I break down again," reads one diary entry.)

The psychological complexity revealed in his personal writing is echoed in the rough drafts of his work. The draft of one of his most famous poems, "The Dug-Out," for instance, contains an extra verse that was never published, in bold below:

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled, 

And one arm bent across your sullen, cold, 

Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,  

Deep-shadowed from the candle's guttering gold; 

And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder; 

Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head...

You are too young to fall asleep for ever; 

And when you sleep you remind me of the dead. 

Go out into the glimmering peace of day-break;

You should be wild with gladness like the lark

Above this dim brown rustling corn,

Above these haunted willows looming through the dark.

In this version, the poem ends on a note of hope; just as Sassoon implores the unnamed soldier in this unpublished verse, he himself would manage to escape untimely death in war and go on to find some degree of light outside the dark.