The poem "The General" is from Siegfried Sassoon's second collection of war poems which was published in the year 1918 and entitled "Counter Attack and Other Poems."
This very short poem bitterly satirizes the incompetence of the general who commanded his soldiers during the first world war. The general must have been a blue blooded aristocrat who would address his soldiers, who were mostly ordinary men, with the right upper class accent. The general being a staff officer would himself not go into the battlefield. He would merely politely and cheerfully address his soldiers "as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack" to meet their cruel and untimely deaths.
In this poem Sassoon directs his anger on those most directly responsible for the soldiers’ fate. The germ of this brief but highly effective satire seems to have come from an incident in Sassoon’s journey to Arras in Northern France when his regiment, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers, had passed their Corps Commander, Lt.-Gen. Maxse. In the poem the unsuspecting soldiers’ praise of their General’s bluff heartiness - 'He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack - is contrasted starkly with the results of his incompetence, just as his speech is contrasted with the soldiers’ cheerful slang. The use of generic names – ‘Harry’ and ‘Jack’ – which both personalizes and depersonalizes them, and the General’s breezily repeated greeting 'good morning, good morning' together with Harry’s ironic comment and the brutal ending, convey the situation far more vividly than a more elaborate and discursive piece. The colloquial ‘did for them both’ - which implies that the general actually murdered them both - which follows unexpectedly on what appears to be the concluding rhyming couplet, is all the more shocking for its euphemism.