Saturday, 6 April 2013 - 'The Lamb', Bloomsbury
Dr. Santanu Das
Simon Blow & Christian Major
March 13th 2013
Sam Gray, assisted by Rupert Heath and Peter Clinch, gave a talk to the Wadhurst History Society (in Kent) based mostly around Siegfried's early years spent in 'The Weald of Kent' . About 70 people attended on an icy evening and listened avidly to Sam's illustrated talk. The venue, appropriately the 1914-19 Memorial Hall, was opposite the church in the centre of Wadhurst on the A2100.
November 10th 2012
'Poets on the Somme' tour
Several members of the Fellowship went on 'Poets on the Somme' tour in July, jointly organised by the Western Front Association and Battle Honours Ltd.
Vivien Whelpton augmented the superb Battle Honours tour guides with a splendid programme of readings at the many haunting locations on the Somme and surrounding areas.
July 15th 2012
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust - Poetry Day - Sunday July 15th 2012
SSF and the Wilfred Owen association recently attended, and performed at,
' Poetry Sunday' in Stratford-Upon-Avon. They read poems by Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Siegfied Sassoon and other War Poets at the War Memorial Gardens.
November 12th 2011
From Mametz Wood to 'The General' : Imperial War Museum
Inspired by the success of last November's Edward Thomas-themed talks 'From Adlestrop to Arras', SSF patron Jean Moorcroft Wilson wanted to build on that enthusiasm and have this year's event based on the haunting experience of Siegfried Sassoon at the Battle of Mametz Wood in 1916.
Originally she had hoped to share the platform, once again, with the revered historian Sir Martin Gilbert, but unfortunately at the eleventh hour, he had to fly to Nepal to comfort an ailing, elderly relative. Fortunately Jean was able to call upon the oral historian, Max Arthur, whose Forgotten Voices series of books are worldwide best sellers, to step in and also add a new perspective to the event. In the last few days leading up to the event, there had been considerable media interest in Jean Moorcroft Wilson's revelation that she has discovered seven 'unpublished poems', whilst researching the recently-acquired Sassoon archive at Cambridge University. Working on a single-volume, updated version of her definitive two-volume, biography of Sassoon (to be published in 2012) she had stumbled upon these previously unpublished verses in one of Siegfried's trench diaries.
Jean's appearances on BBC's Newsnight and an interview on Radio 4's Today programme, together with a Remembrance week feature in the Telegraph, had resulted in a late rush for tickets. It was so pleasing to see the Imperial War Museum's cinema virtually full as SSF Chair, Meg Crane, welcomed everybody and introduced the two speakers.
Max Arthur took to the lectern and began his talk by paying tribute to his absent friend, Sir Martin, whom he has known for 20 years. He explained that as an oral historian his perspective on the subject would inevitably be different from that of his revered military historian colleague. Max then set the scene by talking briefly about his interviews with the last of the 1st World War veterans, now sadly all deceased. 'One of the most magical moments of my life', he said, was his last interview with the 106-year-old Harry Patch. He was amazed that Harry, when he was looking for a military reference, read from a paperback with its small typeface, without needing to resort to glasses!
Moving on to the main theme of the talks, Max vividly set the scene for the Battle of Mametz Wood, describing in some detail the actual battle location. The largest wood on the Somme battlefield - a mile square - densely forested, with 'stubborn undergrowth', made it very difficult to make effective progress either to pursue or defend a position. The Royal Welch Fusiliers, Siegfried's regiment, was full of 'amateur soldiers' hastily recruited as part of Kitchener's new army. Led into a fierce battle by Generals who had little, if any, experience of such a conflict in the confined and treacherous conditions of the ‘cursed wood’, the casualties mounted very quickly, as a result of fierce 'hand to hand' conflict. Siegfried witnessed dreadful scenes of carnage with the mutilated bodies of fallen soldiers lying around him. Mametz Wood haunted him for the rest of his days. His Military Cross was awarded 'For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy trenches' during the battle of Mametz Wood. The citation continued ' He remained for one and a half hours under rifle and bomb fire, collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.'
SSF lay wreath at the Mametz Wood Memorial
At the end of the six-day battle 'not a single tree remained'. Sassoon was subsequently taken ill with pneumonia and took no further part in the Battle of the Somme, returning to England for a while to recuperate at a temporary military hospital housed in Somerville College, Oxford.
Max spoke for approximately 40 minutes and held his audience spellbound, with his vivid personal recollections of the amazing 'Forgotten Voices' he had interviewed over the last few years. His scene-setting and military analysis of the gruesome battle of Mametz Wood ensured that we appreciated the context in which Sassoon acted so bravely and which he was later to use as the backdrop for, arguably, his most famous poems.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson then took to the lectern and thanked Max both for his splendid talk and for having stepped in, so willingly, at the eleventh hour to replace Sir Martin Gilbert. It was now time subtly to move on from the purely military consequences of Mametz and look at both the physical and emotional effect it had on Sassoon and his colleagues. The recently discovered un-published poems were sampled and discussed straight away. Compared favourably to the later 'Absolution' as rather 'Brooke-like' with rousing sentiments and slightly inflated language, they were, to this summariser's untrained ear, very appealing and their promised publication in next year's revised Sassoon biography is much awaited.
The talk then progressed with extracts from and analysis of his tribute to Hamo, 'To my brother' and then of what is, arguably, Siegfried's first outspoken war poem, 'In the Pink'. Another un-published poem, discovered in the Cambridge manuscripts, was 'Love', centred upon his close friend David Thomas who was killed in March 1916 on the Somme. 'Stand-to:Good Friday Morning' and 'The Redeemer' (started the day he met Robert Graves) and 'The Dead Boche' were read and they graphically illustrated Sassoon's hardening attitude towards the war.
The significance of Siegfried's gruesome experiences in the Mametz Wood conflict resulted in profound compassion being shown in many of his subsequent poems. 'Died of Wounds' is a case in point. Another example is in unpublished lines, discovered by Jean, describing Siegfried coming across a German corpse - 'I lifted him, a heavy lump of death, - Wiped mud from mouth and eyes, and beardless cheek. And showed that sullen mask to the blank sky: I propped him up safely up beside the trench, Till he looked tidy for a hostile corpse!
Finally Jean read from 'Does it matter?' described by Jean as 'Sassoon as his best'
Does it matter? - losing your legs?...
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter? - losing your sight?...
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter? - those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know you've fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.
After just over 45 minutes, during which you could hear a pin drop - so engrossed were the audience, Jean left the lectern to a very enthusiastic reception from the packed auditorium.
Then there followed a forum session: the audience were invited to ask the speakers any questions inspired by the riveting talks they had just listened to.
The first question from SSF treasurer, Sam Gray, was aimed at Max Arthur and asked if he had any knowledge of whether Flame Throwers were used at the Battle of Mametz Wood?
He thought that they were not, but had been used earlier by the Germans and definitely used by the American forces later in the war in 1918.
Back on the theme of poetry, the next question featured the 'linear development' of poetry - style; rhetoric; soldier language; nobleness; and much discussion followed with Jean, quoting such lines as 'Blow out, you bugles, over the rich dead'.
Gladys Mary Coles raised the question that Sassoon quite traditionally employs half-rhyme and imagery - Did he ever venture into free form like Isaac Rosenberg? The question was also raised whether there was more significance in Owen influencing Sassoon or Sassoon influencing Owen?
A question from the floor then came on the subject of the 'Indifference of the Generals to the consequence of their orders and decisions'. Were they aware of the mistakes they were making? Max answered that unfortunately, there were no oral records of the Generals actually discussing this topic. He did point out, however, that there were 60 generals killed in action - they weren't always 'Scarlet Majors at the base'. Some were outstanding (like Rawlinson and Maxse) and fully understood the mentality of the soldiers.
Shell-shock was the subject of the next question. Was Sassoon's poetry noticeably different after his time at Craiglockhart, and if so was this a consequence of suffering from shell-shock? It was agreed that Wilfred Owen was showing obvious physical signs of the recently named condition, whereas it was pointed out that W.H.R. Rivers concluded that Sassoon wasn't actually suffering from shell shock. Peter Owen, Wilfred's nephew, argued that despite having been diagnosed with shell-shock, how was it that at Craiglockhart he was still able to write poems, edit The Hydra, preside over the hospital's Botanical Society and frequently visit friends in Edinburgh?
Another question from the floor was aimed at Jean, enquiring if the seven recently discovered poems would be published in the near future? Yes most of them, was the reply - in next year's anticipated fully-revised, one-volume edition of her renowned Sassoon biography.
The impact of Sassoon's poem 'The Hero' on a group of Jordanian students at a recent First World War poetry workshop was discussed. Reference was made to the letters sent from Sergeants, Majors and Generals to bereaved parents, in which the true circumstances of their sons' deaths were frequently withheld or masked by half truths and impersonal sympathy.
The recently published book Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, by John Lewis-Stempel was cited with reference to the influence of a public school education on the officers at the front, who might well have studied 'classic warfare' at school. Did this give them a tactical edge?.
After just over half an hour, the 'question' session was brought to a close. After a few words of thanks and appreciation to our splendid speakers, Max Arthur and Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Meg Crane also thanked everyone for coming and invited those who didn't have to dash off, to a glass of wine and a canapé or two from the tables in the cinema foyer, just opposite the cabinet displaying the magnificent Brough motorcycle of Siegfried's friend, T.E.Lawrence.
Judging by the comments heard as the audience filed out, it seems that the event had been enjoyed by virtually everybody. We look forward to the next gathering of the Fellowship, which is likely to be in the Spring, at the historic Lamb Pub in Bloomsbury.
The event was reported in the Camden New Journal.
SSF visit to Ypres
The thirty two SSF members who travelled to Belgium and spent three days visiting the Ypres Salient and then the Somme region, had a truly magnificent time. Thanks to the combined efforts of Deborah, Meg and Ypres resident Jack Sturiano, the three days (and nights!) were thoroughly enjoyed by all.
See comments on the Ypres Visit 2010 page
22 May, 2010 - The SSF annual dinner took place at the Angel Coaching Inn, Heytesbury (a former haunt of George Sassoon). There were 25 of us present at the dinner, which was preceded by a visit to Heytesbury House, by kind invitation of the owners. After the meal, Max Egremont spoke about his association with Heytesbury and George Sassoon. This was followed by the presentation of a gift to Dennis Silk, CBE, in recognition of his recent appointment as President of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship. You can see from Dennis's face in this photograph how surprised he was when our Chair Meg Crane got up to make the presentation!