Nearly two dozen diaries and notebooks of Siegfried Sassoon — among a handful of prominent soldier-poets whose artistic sensibilities were forged in the trenches of World War I — are being published online for the first time by the Cambridge University Library.
Sassoon, who served in the British Army, was a “gifted diarist [who] … kept a journal for most of his life,” the library says.
“The papers include a run stretching from 1905 to 1959,” the library says of the diaries and journals made public to coincide with the centenary of the start of the war.
“At the heart of this series are the war diaries, a fascinating resource for the study of the literature of the First World War which enables a fresh analysis of Sassoon’s experience of the catastrophic war which influenced him profoundly,” the library says.
“Until now only Sassoon’s official biographer — Max Egremont — has had access to the complete 4,100-page archive due to its fragile state.
“Librarian Anne Jarvis said the war diaries were of ‘towering importance.’
“The journals, which are made freely available online from Friday, offer a unique insight into life on the front line during World War One.
“Writing in a ‘distinctive’ but clear hand, Sassoon describes life in the trenches, including the moment he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Arras, and his depiction of the first day of the Battle of the Somme as a ‘sunlit picture of hell.’ ”
In one journal entry dated 13 July 1916, Sassoon writes movingly of a generation of men being slowly consumed by the conflict that took some 17 million lives: “all their hope & merriment snuffed out for ever, and their voices fading on the winds of thought, from memory to memory, from hour to hour, until they are no more to be recalled.”
In a sketch in one notebook titled “The Soul of An Officer,” Sassoon — an ordinary enlisted soldier — showed his disdain for those who were, quite literally, calling the shots. Under a picture of a figure in officer’s cap, he scrawled “death” and “fear,” and below “eating and drinking,” and “commonplace chatter about war.”
Although Sassoon survived the war and went on to write novels as well as poetry, dying in 1967 at age 80, other WWI poets, most notably Wilfred Owen, were not as lucky. Owen, who wrote Anthem for Doomed Youth, in which he describes the soldiers “who die as cattle,” was himself killed in November 1918, exactly one week before the signing of the armistice.