June 21, 2006

Suicide in the Trenches

A comment in an open thread at TalkLeft reminded me of this poem by Siegfried Sassoon, who fought for Britain in World War I and was one of the most famous of the war poets:
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.
I've written several essays about Sassoon and his work over the last several years. Most of them were lost (to the internet, at any rate) when the archives were corrupted a year and a half ago. But I'll try to retrieve and republish them in the next month or so. He's a very interesting figure and, as you can tell from this poem, his work was often shattering. In the meantime, here's what appears to be a good site about Sassoon and his life. The site also offers this extract from Sassoon's diaries, which is worthy of note:
June 19 1917

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as 'an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb'. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts...And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes. The soldiers who return home seem stunned by the things they have endured...If only they would speak out and throw their medals in the faces of their masters; and ask their women why it thrills them to know that they, the dauntless warriors, have shed the blood of Germans.

A number of essays of mine about suicide in general are noted at the end of this post about the recent suicides at Guantanamo. (And I will be completing that series in the next day or two. Other topics keep intruding and taking precedence.)