‘Atrocities’: Sassoon and Censorship

Siegfried SassoonThere was an intriguing story in The Guardian a month ago about one of Siegfried Sassoon’s most famous poems, on the subject of British atrocities against German prisoners, having been edited to make it less controversial. You can read the story, and the poem – restored to its original form – here.

Among the comments below the article, I thought this (unconfirmed) anecdote might be worth sharing:

My great uncle who was a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign and later served on the western front, told me how British soldiers who were shell-shocked, were sent on ” snaffle raids” where they would attack Turkish lines, at night, armed only with a bayonet. Needless to say, they never returned, but were never intended to.

20253164I recently saw the almost comically bad propaganda film, Canakkale 1915 (and as you’ll see if you look at the other comments to the Guardian article, jingoistic political capital is still being made out of the Great War by British politicians, too). Inclusion of such an episode might have added some much-needed nuance to the representation of the enemy!

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2 Responses to ‘Atrocities’: Sassoon and Censorship

  1. It is sad to learn that such a great poet’s work was once butchered and toned down. Harsh vocabulary makes war poetry much stronger and effective. But what the editor did is understandable at some point. You can’t imagine the “atrocities” of war before you actually read about them. I think the only piece of work I’ve read that boldly talks about the atrocities of the Turks at the time of war is the novel called Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres, and he’s British. It must have been harder to publish a poem like “Atrocities”, talking about the killing of the prisoners by the British, written by a British poet. It seems extraordinary to me how Sassoon got to that state of mind, separating himself from the nationalistic and patriotic way of thinking, and then dared to write about it when he was surrounded by jingoistic people. I love his courage.

    Also, I wonder how much money you would need to have the old auctioneer, Davids’ collection of manuscripts: Sassoon, Tennyson and Eliot? Amazing.

  2. I think politics and media does a good job of covering the filth and horror of war with the polished, bright, idealised facade of ‘heroism’ and ‘patriotism’. There sure is meaning in defending your land, or fighting for a cause you defend, even if it costs you your life, however that does not even begin to depict the true sense of war, and a world-wide scale one at that. It is quite easy to write off was as ‘inhumane’ and ‘evil’, but what happens when one begins to contemplate on much smaller scale? The situation of the singular, scared, filthy, tired, hungry, disillusioned soldier, thinking about nothing but having the good luck of not getting bayoneted to death in sleep, or blown up to pieces in a dirty trench, is the true aspect of war. And war poetry, and Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry is a great example, is perhaps the best, and most morbidly accurate, medium to depict that face. Through war poetry, we still can feel and understand the true horror, the ‘hell’, that is buried beneath the media-created “us the good guys against them the bad guys” imagery, present all around the world.

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