A hundred years ago Siegfried Sassoon, the soldier and poet, spent the final Easter of World War I serving in the Holy Land. On Easter Saturday in 1918 he wrote a sonnet called In Palestine, characteristically reflecting his weariness of the conflict:
On the rock-strewn hills I heard
The anger of guns that shook
Echoes along the glen.
In my heart was the song of a bird,
And the sorrowless tale of the brook,
And scorn for the deeds of men.
By then it was no secret that Sassoon was disenchanted with the war. Through his poetry he had made known to the British public the horror of the trenches. By July 1917, he could have been court-martialled and even shot for his “Soldier’s Declaration”, an unflinching statement of protest at the conduct and the objectives of the war which was read out in the House of Commons and published in the Times.
Beforehand, Sassoon had been summoned to Liverpool, where the Royal Welch Fusiliers, his regiment, were based, and placed under pressure to stay silent. He was instructed to face a medical board of the Western Command which could have declared him insane. But instead he took a train to Formby and, making his way through the sand dunes, arrived at the Mersey estuary where he tore the ribbons from his Military Cross and threw them into the sea.
His execution was averted through the intervention of Robert Graves, and possibly Winston Churchill. He was, after all, a war hero renowned for his near-suicidal feats of bravery and decorated for rescuing wounded men under fire. So instead of a court martial, he was sent for treatment for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, and it was there that for the first time he met Wilfred Owen, who would become one of the most distinguished of the war poets.
Both men would soon return to the Front. Owen was killed on November 4, 1918, exactly a week before the war ended, but Sassoon was already home by that time, having been shot in the head by “friendly fire” near Arras in July. For Sassoon, the war had ended at the scene of one of his most famous war poems, The General:
“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.
It is for such trenchant satire and realism that Sassoon is remembered as a war poet, but his writings continued long after and towards the end of his life focused almost exclusively on religion.
The discovery of faith came late even though Alfred, his father, was a member of an illustrious mercantile Sephardic Jewish family referred to as “the Rothschilds of the East” on account of their success from Baghdad to Bombay.
Judaism was never part of his religious formation because Sassoon’s mother, Theresa, was an Anglican who raised her children as Christians.
He went to Cambridge University but dropped out and spent the pre-war years charging around rural Kent on his horse, Cockbird, in point-to-point races and fox hunts, a privileged lifestyle which inspired Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, his fictionalised autobiography now considered something of a classic.
After the war, Sassoon toyed with left-wing politics and was appointed literary editor of the socialist Daily Herald, now the Sun. He had affairs with male writers, aristocrats and the actor Ivor Novello before suddenly, and to the shock of high society, marrying Hester Gatty, a woman 19 years younger.
The marriage failed after World War II and Sassoon found himself living largely alone in his country pile at Heytesbury, Wiltshire.
It was there, in 1957, that Sassoon again stunned his contemporaries by converting to the Catholic faith. This came after he received a letter from Mother Margaret Mary McFarlin, superior of the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington Square, London, telling him she had discerned a “yearning for God” in his poetry. They became friends and she introduced him to the writings of St John of the Cross. Sassoon described her as the “greatest benefactor of my life”.
Sassoon asked Mgr Ronald Knox, whom he had met through Katherine Asquith, a friend and a convert, to receive him into the Church. But the priest was too ill so Sassoon was instructed by Dom Sebastian Moore of Downside Abbey. He was received there on August 14, 1957 – without informing his wife, son or friends.
In his new faith Sassoon felt a great joy sometimes bordering on ecstasy. He built a chapel at Heytesbury and would spend long periods in prayer. He read the sermons of Blessed John Henry Newman and was devoted to the poetry of the Victorian Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins.
In his letters, he reflected that where peace in his life had been once “episodic and unreliable” it had now become permanent. He told Mother Margaret Mary that his first Christmas as a Catholic was “the most profoundly peaceful Christmas Day of my life”, adding: “I’ve never before known what real peace is.”
Preparing for the Easter of 1958, he wrote the poem Lenten Illuminations, in which he acknowledges in the concluding verses grace and the presence of God within in his life, speaking to “that all-answering Heart abidant here”.
Most of Sassoon’s family declined to follow him into the Catholic Church. The exception was his niece, Jessica Gatty, who was a 21-year-old atheist when they first discussed religion after meeting by chance in that same year.
She recently told the Guardian that the encounter had a profound effect on her. “I knew he had something,” she said. “Part of him seemed to connect to something much deeper. I had lots of questions and I felt he was someone with answers.”
Walking in a garden, Sassoon showed Gatty a petal and said: “You have to believe that someone created that.” She said later: “I recognised at that moment that, yes, someone had. Siegfried was right.”
Against the wishes of her family, in 1961 Gatty became a Catholic, and in 1976 she joined the Sisters of the Assumption, the order to which Mother Margaret Mary belonged.
In her view, Sassoon’s writings brought him closer to God. “His poetry turned into prayer,” she said. “The attention that was there as he wrote poetry became the attention that turned to the source of poetry.”
Sassoon’s quest for truth led him in late 1959 into a friendship with Dame Felicitas Corrigan, a Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey.
He visited the abbey for the first time in 1960 but soon liked to be there for his birthday each September 8. According to Max Egremont, Sassoon’s biographer, Dame Felicitas would often look at a photograph of him because she saw in it the epitome of a 20th-century man in search of faith and rejecting despair. She once remarked that “all his Jewish ancestry is in his face and he looked like an Old Testament prophet, weeping and lamenting as he sits in the dust of which he is made”.
Stanbrook Abbey agreed to publish a volume of poetry about his path to the Catholic faith under the title The Path to Peace. Sassoon grew closer to Dame Felicitas and when, on September 1, 1967, he entered the final hour of his life, a week before his 81st birthday, she felt a strong impulse to pray the Stations of the Cross and for the dying. Sassoon was laid to rest close to the grave of Mgr Knox.
Six years later Dame Felicitas published Siegfried Sassoon: Poet’s Pilgrimage, a book which contains much of their correspondence. In one letter, Sassoon tells his friend that he is weary of his “old body” and that he hungers for the “final revelation and summing up of what I’ve accomplished by that very mixed bag – my life”.
“All I know,” he tells her, “is that my pilgrimage has ended as a man before a crucifix finding sanctuary.”
Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist
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