Siegfried Sassoon – Kent's rebel poet

War hero, writer and sportsman, Siegfried Sassoon was all of these things, but he was also a Man of Kent and in his book Weald of Youth, written in 1942, forecast modern developments that were coming to the Kent he so loved

Siegfried Sassoon – Kent’s rebel poet

War hero, writer and sportsman, Siegfried Sassoon was all of these things, but he was also a Man of Kent and in his book Weald of Youth, written in 1942, forecast modern developments that were coming to the Kent he so loved

A letter written by Siegfried Sassoon to Mr J.Sturgess of Tenterden in which he refers to cricket at Tonbridge, hunting at Penshurst, and "space travel and other ghastliness"

The blood, the mud and the horror of the World War One trenches must have seemed a world away as the young Army officer walked to the foreshore of Formby beach, Lancashire on a warm July day in 1917.

What he did next was a defining moment in the life of Siegfried Sassoon, one of the most courageous, talented and complex figures from the pages of Kent history.

Sassoon, an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was so recklessly brave that his soldiers had nicknamed him Mad Jack after he stormed an enemy trench to rescue wounded comrades. For that he was awarded the Military Cross.

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But as Sassoon stood at the water’s edge, he ripped off the small purple-and-white striped ribbon marking him as the recipient of one of Britain’s highest decorations for gallantry, and tossed it into the sea. It was the ultimate symbol of his disgust and condemnation, as “the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

It was a remarkably brave gesture, because he had already written to his commanding officer to tell him that he was no longer prepared to “perform any future military duties”, and he knew the result was likely to be court martial, public disgrace and perhaps even the firing squad.

But then Siegfried Sassoon was no ordinary man. Born in 1886 in the West Kent village of Matfield to a rich father of Indian heritage and an artistic English mother, he decided at the age of five that he wanted to become a poet. When he was nine, he had the supreme self-confidence to compile a book of his childish verse and drawings which he entitled The Complete Edition.

He grew up in a rambling, Gothic house called Weirleigh on the outskirts of Matfield with his brothers Michael and Hamo, and attended the New Beacon prep school at Sevenoaks.

Sassoon describes golf at Lamberhurst, playing cricket for Blue Mantles in Tunbridge Wells, and riding point-to-point at Ide Hill and Sutton Valence

His early sensitivity was almost certainly intensified by the emotional devastation caused when his father walked out, leaving their mother, Theresa, to care for the boys.

The desertion had such an impact on Siegfried – so named because of his mother’s love for Wagnerian opera – that when in 1929 he wrote Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, a lightly fictionalised version of his early life in Kent, he stated that both his parents died “before I was capable of remembering them.”

It was one of several books Sassoon wrote in the early years of the 20th century, including The Weald of Youth, The Old Century and Sherston’s Progress – all recently described by broadcaster Andrew Marr as “love letters to ‘Olde England’” - and which today are classics of their kind.

Each draws a vivid picture of what life was like for a privileged young man before the outbreak of the Great War, a gilded existence of horse riding, hunting and leisurely games of cricket.

In The Weald of Youth he describes golf at Squire Morland’s estate at Lamberhurst, playing cricket for Blue Mantles at Tunbridge Wells, and riding point-to-point races at Ide Hill and Sutton Valence. So passionate was he about hunting, that entire chapters of his books are devoted to days in the field.

But after the sun-dappled summer of Kentish youth came the cold reality of war, and the 27-year-old Sassoon enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry and set off for the front.

Later commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the horrors of trench warfare engendered in him both a foolhardy attitude towards his own safety and an overwhelming compassion for the suffering of ordinary soldiers, ultimately leading him to that defining day on Formby beach.

Instead of hauling him before a court martial, the authorities decided that Sassoon should be sent to Craiglockhart military hospital in Scotland, where he was treated for shell shock. Surprisingly, he was also persuaded to return to the front, where he was once again wounded and sent home.

After the war, he became literary editor of the Left-leaning Daily Herald - his experiences and acquaintances had led him towards a belief in Socialism – and wrote his highly-acclaimed books, many of them referring to his Kentish youth, as well as collections of poetry.

In 1933, Sassoon moved to Heytesbury, Wiltshire with his new wife Hester. Although they had a son, George, the marriage broke down, and the war hero and author embarked on a series of less-than-successful relationships with men, including Ivor Novello, Beverly Nichols and, most destructively, with the Hon Stephen Tennant.

He lived at Heytesbury for the rest of his life, increasingly revered for his writing and principled stand against war. His latter years were marked by seclusion, and a growing disenchantment with what he saw as a “lost England”, typified by his golden Kentish youth.

Siegfried Sassoon died just before his 81st birthday in 1967. Today, Sassoon ‘pilgrims’ regularly arrive at Matfield and Weirleigh to discover echoes of a man in whom complexity, culture and courage were hallmarks of his greatness.

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