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Suicide in the trenches

English poet and decorated officer ponders war

Ed. Note: November 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War I. The San Diego Reader will devote this month’s poetry columns to the poets who wrote about their experiences of that war.

Suicide in the Trenches

  • I knew a simple soldier boy
  • Who grinned at life in empty joy,
  • Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
  • And whistled early with the lark.
  • In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
  • With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
  • He put a bullet through his brain.
  • No one spoke of him again.
  • You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
  • Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
  • Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
  • The hell where youth and laughter go.

Aftermath

  • Have you forgotten yet?...
  • For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
  • Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
  • And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
  • Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
  • Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
  • But the past is just the same--and War’s a bloody game...
  • Have you forgotten yet?...
  • Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
  • Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
  • The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
  • Do you remember the rats; and the stench
  • Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--
  • And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
  • Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
  • Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
  • And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
  • As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
  • Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
  • With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-grey
  • Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
  • Have you forgotten yet?...
  • Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was an English poet and one of the leading lights of the War Poets—the poets who wrote about their experiences of World War I. A decorated officer for his actions on the Western Front, Sassoon wrote realistically about war in the trenches and eschewed the patriotic slant of those who promoted the war. While recovering from shell shock, he became close friends with fellow War Poet Wilfred Owen, encouraging him to continue writing poetry. Born of a Jewish Father and Anglican mother, Sassoon converted to Catholicism later in life.

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