A War of Individuals: Bloomsbury Attitudes to the Great War

By Jonathan Atkin | Go to book overview

Introduction

The Great War still haunts us. During the first few weeks of 1998, various British national broadsheets carried articles on recently released War Office papers dating back over eighty years and relating to the case of the celebrated First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Although at times a fearless and sometimes reckless warrior, known to the men who served under him as 'Mad Jack', Sassoon had also written powerful anti-war poetry and, though decorated for his bravery on the Western Front, had thrown his Military Cross into the river Mersey whilst on leave.

According to his hitherto confidential army file, now released by the Public Records Office, the War Office had considered him 'a lunatic'. The Independent carried with its article, which was entitled 'Siegfried Sassoon mad, sad or heroically confused?', a large black and white photograph of Sassoon in his uniform. The soldier-poet stares out of the picture, as if into the future. One cannot tell from his expression whether he is about to frown or smile. Will he proffer the hand of friendship or the bayonet of hate? This was the paradox of Sassoon: that a brave, military man should write the verse that he did and also compose his famous 'Soldier's Declaration' against the conduct of the war (which was printed in The Times in July 1916) but should then return to the trenches afterwards, to live or die. Was he mad? The authorities naturally thought so. Not only mad, but dangerously so liable to influence others with his proclamations on the conflict and its conduct. Anti-war reaction was expected from 'conchies' and Bohemian types, perhaps, but most definitely not from serving officers in His Majesty's Forces.

As well as the extraordinariness of his character, it was this apparent paradox which lay within Sassoon and, I began to realise, many others, which I wanted to explore when I began the research that forms the basis for this book. My earlier undergraduate research on the attitude of the Bloomsbury Group to the Great War had told me that, far from all opposing the conflict as one, as generally believed, the individuals who constituted this most famous circle of friends reacted in many different ways to the coming of war. Some of the younger 'members', such as the artist Duncan Grant, even supported the war during the initial rush of popular enthusiasm during the hot August and September of 1914.

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