Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

by Siegfried Sassoon

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

I, a single human being with my little stock of earthly experience in my head, was entering once again the veritable gloom and disaster of the thing called Armageddon. And I saw it then, as I see it now - a dreadful place, a place of horror and desolation which no imagination could have invented. Also it was a place where a man of strong spirit might know himself utterly powerless against death and destruction, and yet stand up and defy gross darkness and stupefying shell-fire, discovering in himself the invincible resistance of an animal or an insect. (Page 206)

This quotation very vividly describes the horror of war from a soldier's perspective. The naivety of the speaker (ostensibly a fictional character called George Sherston but to all intents and purposes an autobiographical version of Sassoon) is implied by the line, "my little stock of earthly experience in my head." By some estimates, there were as many as 250,000 underage soldiers (under the age of 19) fighting for Britain during World War I, convinced to enlist in large part because of how British propaganda sold the war as a heroic adventure that would be over in a matter of months. In the quotation above, Sherston also conveys how horrific the reality of war was for these young, naïve soldiers, describing it in apocalyptic terms as "Armageddon" and as "a dreadful place, a place of horror." He also alludes to the idea that war can be dehumanizing. In such conditions, one is reduced to "an animal or an insect," without thought or dignity, only fighting to remain alive.

In war-time the word patriotism means suppression of truth. (Page 261)

Although decorated for bravery in World War I, Sassoon—in this novel and also in his poetry—condemns the patriotism for which, and because of which, many men fought. Sassoon considered World War I to be a jingoistic war, fought for no morally compelling reason. In this quotation, he says that "patriotism means the suppression of truth," meaning that men were encouraged to fight for the honor of their country. In reality, at least according to Sassoon, they were fighting for imperialistic and territorial reasons. When the British government tried to encourage men to enlist for the war (conscription wasn't introduced until 1916), they distributed propaganda which sold the war as something of a lad's holiday, an adventure which would be over by Christmas and from which soldiers would return as national heroes. This propaganda was, in reality, a collection of untruths propped up by patriotism.

His austere scientific intellect was far beyond my reach, but he helped me by his sense of humour, which he had contrived, rather grimly, to retain, in spite of the exasperating spectacle of European civilization trying to commit suicide. (Page 273-274)

In this third quotation, Sassoon demonstrates his wry, sometimes macabre sense of humor, which is also a characteristic of his narrator, George Sherston. The quotation describes Sherston's relationship with a companion whom he calls "the philosopher" and alludes to the sense of humor that they shared. The line "the exasperating spectacle of European civilization trying to commit suicide" is scathing in its assessment of the human race in its current condition. The word "exasperating" implies that the war has become a tiresome and rather pointless exercise, and "spectacle" signals the lack of any meaningful purpose. The war is by now a hollow facade with no substance and no meaning behind it. Also, the fact that "civilization" (and the tone in which that word is spoken seems to be at least a little sarcastic) is still only "trying"...

(This entire section contains 844 words.)

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to kill itself suggests that it is even too inept to do that properly. The suggestion is perhaps that civilization must keep "trying" because it keeps failing.

Rambling among woods and meadows, I could ‘take sweet counsel’ with the country-side; sitting on a grassy bank and lifting my face to the sun, I could feel an intensity of thankfulness such as I’d never known before the War; listening to the little brook that bubbled out of a copse and across a rushy field, I could discard my personal relationship with the military machine and its ant-like armies. (Page 250)

This final quotation is a good one to finish with because it provides a moment of genuine, earnest contentment otherwise rare in the novel, but it is nonetheless as instructive as the previous quotations if one wants to understand the mind of the author. In this final quotation, the beautiful, picturesque description of the "woods and meadows" and of the "little brook that bubbled" is all the more beautiful and picturesque because of the horrors that the rambler (Sherston) has witnessed in the war. He is able to appreciate the natural beauty of the world once more and does so with "an intensity of thankfulness" because he understands how precious these moments really are. This is the country for which, for whatever reasons, he has fought, and he is, perhaps, able to appreciate it's beauty all the more precisely because of the horrors he has fought through.