Northern Male finds Benediction

Being someone who is keen on seeing a film in the cinema and not streaming it to my laptop or TV, I do like a movie which looks good. After all, why would a talented team of people work so hard for you to ignore and miss what they had gone to such lengths to produce?” A good example is Benediction which highlights one of our greatest war poets – Siegfried Sassoon – and will be released in the UK today.

On the big screen it looks amazing. Directed by Terence Davies, this long overdue life story stars Jack Lowden as the younger Siegfried and Peter Capaldi as his older self.

Considering the situation in Ukraine, the release of a film about his life is timely. None of us who watch the news and look into the haunted faces of civilians caught up in that tragedy will need reminding of the individual impact war has and the lasting damage it does.  

But here’s the thing. In the mid nineties, I studied for a journalism degree at Napier University near Edinburgh and at Craiglockhart Campus I started to feel something strange.

Wandering the corridors of this large Victorian building I got the feeling it had some different stories to tell but couldn’t explain why I felt so uncomfortable there.

So doing some research I discovered I was in a former World War One hospital. Where there were young people at the start of their lives had once been a place where men their same age had been ending theirs. The walls had absorbed blood, bandages, suffering and sadness.   

“But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went,
And there was silence in the summer night”.

As someone being trained to write factually, poetry was not on my radar. I got Edmund Lear, John Betjeman and John Cooper Clarke – but if it didn’t rhyme I walked on by. How could I have been so wrong?   

I’d no idea I was rushing to lectures through the corridors and studying in the rooms where two of the most renowned English poets of the first World War first met.

Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Siegfried Sassoon (left); Wilfred Owen (right)

Both these soldiers suffered from shell shock and wrote down what they saw and how it affected them. Being blown up, shot at, watching comrades fall and then putting all this into words created a close bond between them.

I was trying to learn how to write and decades later here were my teachers. After qualifying I resolved to know more. Time plus a need to make a living got in the way. So I filed this away – but could never quite get the feeling I’d had from walking the corridors of Craiglockhart out of my mind.

Why did men feel the need to write about suffering and death? Perhaps the cathartic exercise of doing so was a sort of healing process.

I’ve discovered despite his privileged background and artistic bent Sassoon was an incredibly brave and effective soldier and as I read his poems and of his life I found myself absorbed.

His men nicknamed him ‘Mad Jack’ for his bravado under fire and on 27th July 1916 he received the Military Cross for gallantry. Going “over the top” required a special kind of courage and he had that. But he also had an off switch.

In 1917, following the death of one his friends, David Cuthbert Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon refused to return to duty from convalescent leave and sent a letter (entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration) to his commanding officer, the press and Parliament. More bravado.

Quite why he was convinced otherwise I’m not sure but he returned to the front line in 1918 only to be shot in the head by a British soldier who thought he was a German. He was finally sent home for good.

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know the hell where youth and laughter go”.

Portrait of Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot, 1917 (Fitzwilliam Museum)

Sassoon was also sent to a psychiatric facility for his anti-war stance during WWI, had affairs with several men while being closeted, and developed a crisis in faith when he converted to Catholicism.

It’s fair to say being gay at a time when it was illegal to be so whilst standing up to be shot for your country was not good for his mental health.  

Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;
And there is absolution in my songs”.

He sought solace in writing. I absolutely understand why.

Many have written about his life. If you want to read more I would recommend “The Journey From The Trenches” by Jean Moorcroft Wilson.

“Love drives me back to grope with them through hell;
And in their tortured eyes I stand forgiven”.

Siegfried Sassoon died on 1st September 1967 from stomach cancer at the age of 80. He was buried at St Andrew’s Church at Mells in Somerset.

Along with his friend Wilfred Owen and other World War 1 poets, he is also commemorated at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Owen wrote on his friends plaque “My subject is War and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

Like all those who gave their lives they rest with the thanks of a grateful nation.

As a footnote I should add my lecturer in journalism told his class the word “that” was usually superfluous and we were not to repeat the word “and” too close together. He was right about the first but not the second.

At the back of the class the ghost of SS leant on his rifle and looked and stared at his muddy boots.

“For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost”.

It will say that on my tombstone. But it will turn to dust too. Everything does.

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Lots more articles from our only male contributor can be found here

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