Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382
By titling his novel “memoirs,” Siegfried Sassoon emphasizes the authentic bases for a fictional treatment of World War I service. Drawing on his own experience, Sassoon offers a picture of an officer who wants to believe in a noble cause but is constantly confronted by the absurdities of war as lived experience. In several deployments to the front in France, the English officer Gregory Sherston changes from a dutiful, if laconic, supporter of the British effort to a near-deserter who requires extreme persuasion to return. As his own experiences and his encounters with distorted press accounts combine to eradicate any idealism he once possessed, he ends up disillusioned not only with the war itself but also with his country’s role in perpetuating the wanton destruction that he miraculously survived.
Sherston’s progress roughly parallels that of the war, as his time in France on the German lines corresponds to the worst phases of trench warfare. After enduring the horrors of the Battle of the Somme, Gregory spends a period recovering back in England, where he begins to see the kind of propaganda being sold to the British public. He cannot openly discuss his experiences because the horror is so fresh, but he also sees that his truthful accounts would contradict the published versions and cast doubt on the veracity of one side. Returning to the front, he tries to behave as a warrior and, perhaps, become a hero. Both his own confusion and the botched efforts of the higher command make that an impossible goal.
The heart-wrenching climax comes when Gregory, who has been sent back to England once again, decides he cannot in good conscience return to the front. He will denounce the war as a travesty of the principles it espouses. His friend’s intervention “saves” him from what everyone else sees would be a grave error. Sherston’s life will be shattered no matter what he decides. Only by taking the chance of getting killed in France will he have any chance of resuming “normal” life at the war’s end. He is offered the alternative to be declared mad and institutionalized for the duration. The sane course demands going back on his principles and, in effect, becoming complicit in the hypocrisy he had felt compelled to denounce.
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