Siegfried Sassoon, a British poet, was considered an anti-war poet. He fought in World War I receiving the Military Cross for bravery in action. In addition, he was wounded in battle and spent several months in the hospital for shell shock. Again, he returned to battle and fought until the end of the war.
His war poetry was angry and often sarcastic. Until he found the Catholic Church, Sassoon spent much of his life searching for peace and clarity of purpose.
Good-morning, good-morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line
Now the men that he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack
Written in 1917 during his hospital stay, “The General” sends a clear message to those who send soldiers into battle: Be just as prepared as the men that are sent into battle. If the men die, it may be the officer’s responsibility. Never take it lightly. Using common British names to represent the ordinary soldier, Harry tells Jack that the general is a likeable sort.
In contrast to the seriousness of the situation, the anonymous General comes in rather pleasantly and says: “Good morning, Good morning.” The soldiers saw him the week before as they walked toward the battle. Using dialectical diction to indicate the commonness of the narrator, the speaker quietly announces that most of the men at which the General smiled are now dead.
The men who returned from battle now damn the General’s staff as ineffectual louts. The speaker reports that one of the soldiers said to the other one that the General was a cheery old character. These men were trudging through the mud with rifles and gear on their way to the Battle of Arras.
Ending with a blunt but dramatic statement, the pointed lesson is intensely ironic: The General and his staff are responsible for the death of the men [Harry and Jack] in the poem.
This brief poem contains a powerful message. It is focused toward those who are directly responsible for the soldiers’ fate. The poem contrasts the unsuspecting soldier’s praise of their General’s jovial demeanor to his incompetence and the resulting fate of his men. The poem is personal to the poet and certainly to the families of those who lost loved ones to have an error or poor judgment on the part of officers.
A two sentence paraphrase
In “The General” by Siegfried Sassoon, the General and his staff appear to be too lighthearted toward sending men off to battle and possible death. The poet’s message to the officers is clear: Be just as prepared for battle as are the soldiers because incompetence can kill.