My WWI reading continues with this, one of the most well known memoirs of the Edwardian period. Siegfried Sassoon, who would become the writer of some of the greatest poems to emerge from the war, wrote a trilogy of fictionalised autobiographies in order to explore his life pre, during and post the Great War. Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man is the pre war volume, though the last few chapters do describe the first two years of the war, most of which Sassoon spent either in England, training, or behind the scenes at the front. The next volume, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, describes his experiences as a trench soldier, and I will be getting to that next, as I am intrigued to find out how his description compares with that of Robert Graves’ in Goodbye to All That. As such, this novel is not really about the war, but about the world the war destroyed, and it truly is a fascinating account of a life that no one dreamed would end on a hot August day in 1914.
Sassoon’s slightly fictionalised version of his younger self is called George Sherston, and he grows up with his kindly spinster Aunt Evelyn in a large house in a pretty, rural Kent village. George’s closest friend is his Aunt’s groom, Dixon, who is determined to make young George a gentleman and gets him on horseback as soon as Aunt Evelyn’s nerves will allow it. George adores his horse and can’t wait to be able to join the Hunt he has heard so much about from Dixon; there are a number of large country estates nearby, and the neighbourhood is well known for its excellent fox hunts. When he is about 11, Dixon takes George to his first hunt, and George is mesmerised by the glamour and excitement of it all. The red coats, the cursing men, the skilful jumping over fences and ditches and the hurry and scurry of dogs and servants; it is a tremendous thrill for the closeted young boy, and he determines to one day be good enough to participate properly. Soon after this George is sent away to school, and then goes to Cambridge, but he doesn’t last long there. A rather lazy and directionless young man, he has no need to work due to the allowance he has from his parents’ estate, and his Aunt’s indulgent affection means that he will always have a home with her. As he moves into his early twenties, his day to day life is one of idle rambles, reading, cricket matches, horse riding, fox hunting and the occasional trip to London to buy smart new clothes. George has no interest in politics and has no awareness of the outside world at all; the war comes as a huge shock to him, and his naiveity and public school boy morals of courage and valour see him signing up to fight even before the official announcement is made. Little did he know what he was getting himself into, and how far from his cosy, cosseted Edwardian drawing room he would be forced to go..
Despite his aimlessness, I found George a wonderfully endearing character. This is largely due to Sassoon’s straightforward, engaging writing style that is quite similar to Graves’, though Sassoon is more romantic and elegiac than Graves. His description of the carefree innocence of the pre war world is really rather moving; the dappled sunshine on cricket pitches, the picture hats and white lawn dresses of the ladies at village fetes, the immense care taken over social niceties and the tight knit local communities where everyone knew and cared for one another; all of this was taken for granted and no one seemed to think it would ever change. The introduction of the war in the novel is totally unanticipated and shockingly abrupt; one minute George is at a hunt, and the next he is training for combat. This structure echoes how many people must have felt when war was declared; like George, they sleepwalked into it, not knowing how completely their lives would change forever. Graves also describes this sense of obliviousness, and both men share the view of how misguided they and their fellow soldiers were. Buoyed up by their public school values of courage and patriotism, they signed their own death warrants, truly believing that they were doing a glorious thing. ‘Courage remained a virtue. And that exploitation of courage, if I may be allowed to say a thing so obvious, was the essential tragedy of the War,’ writes Sassoon, who is not shy about criticising the terrible waste of life perpetrated by cowardly leaders with no front line experience and safe office jobs, who actively encouraged young men to sign up and go to the front by shamelessly drawing on the virtues of heroism they had been taught at school and keeping them hopelessly ignorant of the true state of affairs. More a crime than a tragedy, if you ask me, and one that still makes me absolutely livid whenever I think of it.
This volume goes up to 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme, and the understated grief underlying the descriptions of George’s experiences moved me to tears in the final pages. I’m both looking forward to and dreading reading the next volume, as I know it’s only going to get worse. For a true insight into the utter otherworldly, nightmarish quality of being thrown from a comfortable domestic existence into a muddy field full of dead comrades and barbed wire, with no end in sight and longing for the chair by the fire and a nice cup of tea that you know still exists just a few hundred miles away, you can’t get any better than this. I found it illuminating, entertaining and desperately sad; it really should be required reading.