‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

 Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy’
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

 He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915)

The cruelty in this poem is overwhelming – as Sassoon intended. So opposed was he to jingoistic propaganda, he deliberately slashed very tender imagery with the sharpest irony. In so doing, he severed arteries of pride, courage and honour leaving a bloody corpse of reality seeping before us. As readers, we are left bewildered, wounded and suffering our own form of shell-shock – not unlike those enduring the fall out of war.

It is a quaint opening: clichés, stoic pride and the archetypal sentiment in the image of the (not ‘a’) mother fulfilling her role as a lone, vulnerable female making her sacrifice for the war effort. The vapid compliment to Colonel ‘chokes’ her tired voice in a contrived effort to stop the anguish pouring out. She speaks on behalf a nation of bereft mothers in her use of the collective pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ yet one suspects that, alongside only ‘half look[ing] up,’ she thus avoids making the death of her son personal, she stems the flow of a very truthful pain. In the same way, she refers to her son collectively ‘our dead soldiers’ again removing the immediacy of the grief. What is said on the surface hides a multitude of emotions; here is a sense of parallel meanings: the mother’s stoic response to the news of her son’s death represents the sense of honour and pride that typically ameliorated this ‘Great War’ to those at home.

The second stanza violates the respectful image instantaneously as the sacred maternal figure is derided as a ‘poor old dear’ suggesting she is unthinking, gullible, stupid. Reinforcing the image, the oxymoronic sense of ‘gallant lies’ sums up Sassoon’s perception of ‘the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise’. It is as if the mother is a metaphor for Britain herself, ‘shin[ing] with gentle triumph’, honouring the fallen as their own ‘glorious boy[s]’. The nation, Sassoon believes, is gullible and unaware of the truth of the war. It is an unthinking patriotism which has conveniently removed the reality of the grief, horror and sacrifice.

The final stanza drives the irony much deeper. There was no glory, courage or pride. The soldier, not a man but just a boy, did not die honourably; through cowardice, he was trying to ‘get sent home’ rather than fulfil his duty. The soldier was compared to a ‘useless swine’: not only was he ineffectual as a soldier, he was reduced to a lowly animal, one that we associate with mud, ignorance and as one of a herd bred only ‘at last’ for slaughter – death a preferable and longed for option. There is even an irony in the sonorous quality of ‘being blown to small bits’: whereas the percussive sounds of the plosive alliterative ‘B’ sounds reiterate the sound of gun fire, the long vowel sounds in ‘being blown’ adds an almost romantic, ethereal quality, a rising sense of release from the filth and noise. Finally, the juxtaposition of the soldier’s untidy, dishonourable death with the final image of the vulnerable old lady could not emphasise more fully the sense of duplicity and waste for which ‘no one seemed to care.’

Julia Rivington (Ipswich School)