The War Made Human: Sassoon, Graves and Owen's Words from the Front Line

The War Made Human: Sassoon, Graves and Owen's Words from the Front Line

W e rightly remember the lyrics of Graves, Sassoon, Owen, and their contemporaries as a vital record of the tremendous human cost of the world’s first mechanised mass conflict. But the inscriptions in these volumes also elucidate another compelling story—a narrative about the human relationships forged by and between the chroniclers of this unprecedented historical episode.

The most perfect emblem of a close-knit creative relationship between two soldier-poets can be found in a pair of copies of Over the Brazier and The Old Huntsman, reciprocally inscribed by Graves and Sassooon (both lot 333). The brief inscriptions—“S.S. from R.G.” and “R.G. from S.S.”—together form a chiasmus, a subtle and elegant acknowledgement of how the first published volumes of war poems by these two authors can be read as a twin conception, written by comrades who met and served together in the same regiment, and thus closely mirroring each other in important ways.

As Graves recounts in his wartime biography (lot 341), the pair instantly bonded over their mutual love of books, critiquing each other’s early drafts of verse. Both poets survived the war and went on to enjoy long literary careers, maintaining a longstanding, if not always entirely harmonious, friendship, though sadly only one of these two volumes remained in the hands of its intended recipient. Now rightly reunited, these two copies represent the greatest imaginable pairing of World War One poetry books.

Another copy of The Old Huntsman, dedicated to Thomas Hardy alongside a rare inscribed copy of “A Soldier’s Declaration" (both lot 379), is an object greater than the sum of its parts, telling a complex narrative about the relationship between these two men. In the trenches, Sassoon kept a copy of Hardy’s Selected Poems in his uniform pocket for comfort, and the young war poet wrote to his literary idol requesting permission to dedicate Huntsman to him.

The manuscript dedication in this copy is at first glance appropriately effusive: "To Thomas Hardy, with all my admiration, from Siegfried Sassoon. ‘What of the faith & fire within us?'” But the quotation is taken from Hardy’s 1914 lyric “The Men Who Marched Away”, which captured the popular enthusiasm for the cause of the war in 1914. Quoted in the context of a 1917 volume, penned by a soldier grappling with deep-seated doubts about fighting for a cause in which he had lost faith, this line takes on a different, ironic resonance—less a rallying cry and more an elegy for a no longer sustainable sense of moral certainty.

Just as intriguing as the book itself is the slight but incendiary document tipped-into the front pastedown. In his “Soldier’s Declaration”, Sassoon declines to return to active duty, citing a betrayal of the noble principles of "defence and liberation" which compelled a generation of men to make the ultimate sacrifice—principles which Hardy rather unconvincingly evokes in 1917 in A Call to National Service (see lot 348). The “Declaration” succeeded in causing quite a public stir, being read before the Commons and printed in The Times, and it is nowadays a well-known text for the study of World War One. But it is important to note that the present copy was one of a very small number of copies originally circulated to a select group of individuals. Unusually, Hardy’s copy bears a decisive inscription: “I am handing this to my Commanding Officer. SS.”

Hardy’s own private attitudes to a conflict which claimed the life of his favourite cousin were ambivalent, and reading his copy of The Old Huntsman appears to have been a moving experience. After reading the book, he wrote to Sassoon: “I should say that I am not reading th[e poems] rapidly. I never do read rapidly anything I care about”. Six of the poems are marked in pencil next to the titles—subtle signs of Hardy’s careful, deliberative reading.


For me personally though, the most emotive object in the collection is the copy of Fairies and Fusiliers inscribed by Graves to the comrade who saved his life in the trenches (lot 336). Above the title of the lyric on page 63 ("Escape"), Graves has hand-written: "Dedicated to O.M. Roberts 2nd R W Fus, in grateful memory of July 20, 1916". In the poem, Graves lies at death’s door, and passing passing through Lethe, he feels “the vapours of forgetfulness | Float in [his] nostrils”—an acknowledgement of the poet’s frustration at being unable to recall an accurate account of what actually happened to him amidst such traumatic, disorientating circumstances.

Roberts’ heroics are unmentioned in the poem’s narrative, and neither are they acknowledged in Graves’ 1929 autobiography. It is likely that this copy of Fusiliers was inscribed to Roberts after the pair were reunited towards the end of their lives, and the act of inscribing this book must have been highly cathartic for Graves, giving him an opportunity to set the record straight after all those years.

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