Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is the second in Siegfried Sassoon’s trilogy of loosely fictionalised memoirs. He signed up to be an Officer just before WW1 was declared and was given a ‘safe’ job behind the front line, but was not content to take a back seat. At the end of Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, we see George Sherston, Sassoon’s alter ego, become an Officer in the trenches, and this is where Memoirs of an Infantry Officer picks up, in 1916. The action has started to heat up, and there are murmurings of a ‘big push’ in the near future. However, this fails to materialise for quite some time, and so most days in Sherston’s battalion are not particularly exciting, and are marked more by a sense of boredom and annoyance at being stuck in muddy, smelly and unpleasant trenches with nothing in particular to do than any military action. Much of the work, such as mending wire, sandbagging, building and repairing walls and dugouts and sentry duty happened under the cover of darkness. As such, days on end were spent hanging about, waiting for something to happen.
When things do start to hot up, there is a real sense of tension, foreboding and frustration amongst the men and the officers. Orders are never clear, and are usually contradictory. The battalion are constantly made to risk their lives on small skirmishes and missions to capture trenches that have no real purpose and just result in needless deaths and injuries. George and his fellow officers frequently know they are being forced to go on suicide missions, but they are powerless to do anything about it and so just accept that they are part of the machine that is war and have to play their role just like everyone else, come what may. It is fascinating how Sassoon portrays the rather fatalistic attitude of the men; for many there was no sense of anger at the position they had been placed in, just sadness and acceptance.
The majority of soldiers seem to have accepted that they probably weren’t going to make it through the war alive, and took it in their stride, believing that they were making a noble sacrifice and would do their best no matter what risk to their own lives. The all pervading sense of honour and the expectation that every man would ‘do their bit’ meant that there were very few displays of cowardice or nerves, all things considered. The men were dished out their rum rations, wished each other good luck, and went over the top with as good a grace as they could muster, usually laughing and joking as they went. Sassoon’s descriptions of Sherston’s feelings of nerves before battles are just so understatedly moving; he knows he has no choice but to go, but he is terrified at the thought of dying, of becoming one of those groaning men writhing around on No Man’s Land. With a characteristic touch of humour, Sherston observes: ‘Late that night I was lying in the tent with The Return of the Native on my knee….How were things going at Bazentin, I wondered? And should I be sent for tomorrow? A sort of numb funkiness invaded me. I didn’t want to die – not before I’d finished The Return of the Native, anyhow.’ Life became reduced to the basics; pleasure in simple things, with every day without a battle, every day without being forced into danger, able to relax, read, chat, and just rest in the knowledge that today you could be safe, becoming the most enormous gift. What a world to be thrown into. And yet this existence became disturbingly normal after a time, and even enjoyable; during his leaves home Sherston began to long to be back in the trenches with his men, as this was where he had come to belong.
When Sherston is injured during a battle, he is sent home to recuperate, and gets to spend time luxuriating in a bright and flower filled officer’s hospital, and then the home of an elderly Lord and Lady in the Sussex countryside. While he recovers, Sherston is infuriated by the ignorance shown by the general public towards what is really happening at the front, and their lack of anger at the waste of life. Having witnessed the blunders and ill advised orders of office bound superiors anxious to make names for themselves by bringing about a ‘good show’, Sherston knows just how pointless much of the action is, and he also knows how many lies were being printed in the newspapers. Seeing his friends reduced to names in casualty lists and the frivolity and idealism of the clueless civilians at home sends Sherston into a total about-face in his previously rather conventional and patriotic public schoolboy attitude towards the war. Why should all these men like him be forced to live in trenches and risk their lives every day for a country of people who were living the life of riley just miles from the front line? Profiteers were drinking champagne and eating lobsters in fancy hotels while the men at the front hunched over chipped mugs of lukewarm tea and ate tinned stew in dugouts that smelled of decomposing bodies. Where was the justice, where was the glory, in that? Sherston decides that he is not going back; he is going to make a stand. But will anyone actually listen to what he has to say?
I love Siegfried Sassoon’s writing; he is so warm, engaging, humorous and self deprecating. He makes it clear that Sherston’s experiences are not representative of everyone’s, and he is very aware of his own privilege as an Officer rather than a Private. He doesn’t consider himself to have been brave – more reckless than anything – and the pain of the many losses of friends he experienced and the horror of what he saw is raw and moving without needing to be shocking or sensationalised. The slow emergence of his doubt and anger towards the war is fascinating to read; while he is part of the machine, Sherston never questions why he is there or whether it is right for him to be shooting at other men. This echoes Graves’ account in Goodbye to All That. The war became a strange, self contained world where the primary motivator was survival, not ideals. However, once Sherston has a chance to reflect and has been disillusioned by spending time with seemingly ungrateful civilians, he begins to break free of the unquestioning bonds of loyalty and honour that have been drummed into him from his youth, and think for himself. Is there ever a right or a wrong when you are looking another human being in the eyes with a gun in your hand? Is there such a thing as a ‘noble cause?’ Sassoon raises plenty of questions without being hectoring or didactic, and his honesty and openness are refreshing and enlightening to read. Memoirs don’t get better than this; for a gripping and human account of what it was really like to live through war, you have to read Sassoon’s writing. I loved every minute, and am already looking forward to the third instalment.