Capturing the horrors of the trenches of World War I in brutal yet compelling verse, Siegfried Sassoon told stories that many at the time were not ready to hear.
But while his words remain as vital as when they were written a century ago, his own story is less well told.
Now, the soldier poet’s life is brought to the big screen in a new biopic, Benediction. Written and directed by Terence Davies – best known for his autobiographical film Distant Voices, Still Lives – the film comes out on Friday.
It features Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi as Sassoon in later life and Dunkirk star Jack Lowden in the writer’s early years.
Sassoon was a decorated war hero who continued to write scathingly about the conflict – landing him in a mental hospital with alleged “shell shock”.
Popperphoto via Getty Images)
He also endured the heartbreak of a series of same-sex romances and a short-lived marriage to a woman 19 years his junior.
Born in 1886 into a wealthy family, he left Cambridge University before graduating, with the aim of making a living from his writing.
He will have to wait until the age of 27 to experience success, publishing The Daffodil Assassin in 1913. The following year, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo plunges Europe into crisis. .
He joined the Sussex Yeomanry but broke his arm, only reaching the trenches in 1915 with the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
There he became known as “Mad Jack” for his near-suicidal acts of bravery, including single-handedly capturing a German trench and rescuing wounded comrades under fire.
His bravery won him the Military Cross – but he found the supposed glory of battle overshadowed by the bloodshed and terror he immortalized in verse.
His graphic narratives shocked readers, but he was determined that his poems should convey the realities of war.
In Counter-Attack, he describes a mortally wounded soldier – and the pointlessness of his death: he sank and drowned, bleeding to death. The counterattack had failed.
His poems nonetheless proved popular and received critical acclaim. Dr Marcello Giovanelli, whose book The Language of Siegfried Sassoon is to be published later this year, said: “In the first three or four months of his time at the Front, there was a change in the type of poetry that he was writing.
“We’re moving from writing about forests and flowers to living in the trenches – and focusing on people. The style becomes much more direct, less flowery.
Liberation from dizziness)
“He became known as a poet of frankness and everyday language, using the vocabulary and the vernacular of the soldiers of the Front.
But Sassoon’s ordeal sealed his disillusionment with the war and the way it was unfolding.
He was particularly scarred by the loss of his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas, and in the summer of 1917 wrote an infamous open letter, which he said was a “deliberate challenge to military authority”.
He wrote: “I believe that the war is deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. At a time of fervent patriotism, many saw his words as a betrayal.
But his past bravery and an intervention by the poet Robert Graves saved him from a court-martial.
Liberation from dizziness)
Instead, he was sent to Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh.
Anthony Richards, records manager at the Imperial War Museum, explained: “He was sent there, theoretically, because he had suffered shell shock.
“But one of the main reasons was that he was against the way the war was being fought. They sent him up there to hide him, almost.
In the hospital, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen – another poet whose work depicts the barbarism of war. Owen was so impressed with Sassoon that he told him in a letter that he thought of him as “Keats and Christ and Elijah”.
Back at the front, Sassoon was wounded by friendly fire in July 1918, while Owen was killed on November 4, a week before the armistice.
Mr Richards added: ‘Sassoon was a big influence on Owen and played a huge role in Owen’s publication.
“But through his own poetry there are key examples of how people think about the First World War.
“The most classic is in his poem The General – all that ‘lions driven by donkeys’ idea of brave soldiers in the trenches and dumb generals who don’t know what they’re doing.
“In recent years people have reassessed this, but this view was incredibly popular in the 60s, 70s and 80s.”
As his wartime poetry fell into disuse, Sassoon turned to prose – including a trilogy of novels recounting his own experiences through the “memoirs” of the fictional George Sherston.
It was only after the war that he had his first homosexual relationship, with the artist Gabriel Atkin. He then had other romances, notably with actor Ivor Novello. Then, in 1927, Sassoon finally found love with aristocrat Stephen Tennant. But after six years, Tennant broke off the deal, by letter.
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Actor Capaldi has told how he wondered if he should take on the role – because he’s not gay himself.
He said: “A gay person would have a glimpse of this world that I don’t have. The truth is, I wasn’t kind enough to step down…because I wanted to work with my idol, Terence Davies.
Sassoon was still recovering from his breakup with Tennant when he met Hester Gatty, the daughter of a judge. They married the same year when he was 19 years her senior. They had a son, George, but separated in 1945.
Co-star Lowden said Sassoon was a “pioneer” in questioning the human impact of war – making the film more relevant now.
He said: “I would have said, go see this movie to get to know this incredibly brilliant man. But it makes so much sense right now because it’s about challenging the disrespect for human life.
After his marriage failed, Sassoon became almost a recluse. He died of stomach cancer in September 1967, a week before his 81st birthday.
Biographer Lord Max Egremont believes that the poet’s life was marked by sadness. He said: “There’s a tragic element to it, but it was also capable of immense joy.
“He didn’t really want to be gay. And before 1914 he never really found his true voice as a poet. But the reality of the trenches, the compassion for his men, that’s when things started to change. “
And his work is still the testimony of those lost in battle. Lord Egremont said: “Soldiers who were in Afghanistan said that Siegfried Sassoon’s poems were still a very realistic account of what combat is like on the front line.”
As the poet himself wrote in Aftermath: “Have you already forgotten? Look down and swear by the war dead you’ll never forget…”