Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

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Memoirs of an Infantry Officer Summary

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is actually the second book in a series of fictionalized memoirs about the character George Sherston, essentially a psuedonym for Sassoon himself. Sassoon, who was Jewish and labored under the German name "Siegfried" during a time when this was very inconvenient to him, joked that his life might have been easier if he had been called George. George Sherston is a version of Sassoon whose existence is marginally less complicated, but whose life in the infantry during the First World War borrows very heavily from Sassoon's own. Sassoon based the book upon his war diaries of the period.

Indeed, there could be no doubt that the protagonist of the book is really Sassoon himself. The story may begin as a relatively universal story of a soldier cycling into the war—passing through regulation training, the meeting of friends, and early exposure to the trenches, and peaking with the Battle of the Somme—but the story it tells of objection to the war is entirely Sassoon's. The most memorable section of Memoirs involves Sherston deciding, as Sassoon did, to throw away his military medal in protest against the war, after which he is sent to Craiglockhart Military Hospital and only escapes execution because of the arguments of his close friend, David Cromlech, based on Robert Graves. The book paints an extremely in-depth picture of the inner emotional life of the soldier Sherston, as one might expect, given its source material.

Since its publication, Memoirs has widely been considered one of the most important books of the First World War. However, it can be best understood by contrast to its predecessor, Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, in order to truly comprehend the changes war wrought upon its young narrator.

Summary

(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Spring arrived late in 1916 in the trenches near Mametz. Sherston had made up his mind to die; under the circumstances, there seemed to be little else to do. The battle of the Somme had exhausted him. Colonel Kinjack could see that Sherston was looking for trouble. To forestall any unpleasantness, he sent Sherston to the Fourth Army School at Flixecourt for a month’s training.

The beds at the school were clean and comfortable, and the routine was not too onerous. Sherston settled back to forget the war. He attended a big-game hunter’s lectures on sniping and practiced with a bayonet. He felt that it was incongruous to listen to advice from civilians and army men who had never been close to real war. All the instructors concentrated on open warfare; they were sure that the trenches would soon be abandoned.

One hot Saturday afternoon, he went back to his outfit, where the talk was all of an impending raid. There seemed to be some jealousy involved, for a Canadian raid a short time before had been a great success.

Sherston was sure he would accompany the raiders and wrote a farewell letter to his Aunt Evelyn, a letter in which he slyly assumed the attitude of the “happy warrior.” Entering a dugout, he was a little surprised to see the raiders putting burnt cork on their faces. Their appearance reminded him ridiculously of a minstrel show. Requested to take the raiders up to headquarters, he jumped at the opportunity to present his plea to the commanding officer.

To his disappointment, Colonel Kinjack brusquely told him he had to stay behind to count the raiders when they returned. Therefore, he was condemned to stand in the trench and wait.

As soon as the raiders were well over the parapet, the explosions began. The men struggled back defeated when the second belt of German wire proved invulnerable. They had all tossed their bombs and retired. Sherston began to go out into No Man’s Land to bring in the casualties. A gray-haired lance corporal was glad of his wound, for he had been waiting eighteen months for a chance to go home. O’Brien, the major, was killed, and Sherston had to drag him out of a shell crater. Luckily the Germans, perhaps out of pity, stopped firing.

The result of the raid was two men...

(The entire section is 1,467 words.)