Just off Westminster’s bustling Horseferry Road down the eerily quiet Tufton Street is a green plaque to World War I poet and novelist Siegfried Sassoon, sponsored by the Thorney Island Society. Sassoon lived from 1886 until 1967, and throughout his long life wrote books, reviews, journalism and poetry, but it is his poems from his time in the trenches that have endured and are still read and studied today.
Sassoon was a patriot. He signed up in the early days of the war and commanded troops, but came to loathe the military high command for its recklessness with men’s lives. His poetry is accessible and direct, and it often contrasts a pre-war English country idyll with the brutality of life in the trenches.
His work was controversial. It challenged the established hierarchy, with its presumption that senior officers knew best, as in The General where a premonition of death creeps through the first few lines, with the oblivious officer of the title cheerily sending loyal Harry and Jack to “slog up to Arras with rifle and pack, but he did for them both with his plan of attack”.
During his time in uniform Sassoon struggled with anxiety and fear: fear for his men, fears for his own safety and sanity. He felt he had to test his “manliness” by going out beyond the wire on nocturnal patrols to harass the German front lines and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in rescuing two of his men after a raiding party went badly wrong. But he was conflicted. Over the years, the roll call of killed friends, of his own men and his younger brother, wore him down. He despised the blind patriotism of pride relations took in their dead and wounded and the cheap home-front jingoism of those who stayed behind.
In June 1917, Sassoon wrote what became a statement against the war: “I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.” He sent it to people he felt might be able to use it politically, and he informed his commanding officer that he was no longer prepared to perform any further military duties.
Surprisingly, the army’s response was rather benign. Instead of facing a court martial, Sassoon was sent to a experimental hospital in Craiglockhart, where men were treated for what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. He met and mentored his young fellow poet Wilfred Owen, but was inexorably drawn back to the front. Hearing about setbacks on the western lines, he felt guilty about what his men were still going through. Like a condemned man walking to the gallows, he believed he could not escape the fate that awaited him. Returning from a patrol, he was accidentally shot in the head by one of his own men and finally invalided out of the army. Somehow, he had survived.
The war lent Sassoon’s life a certain nobility – he had wanted to fight for freedom and to defeat the Germans – but people had a romantic ideal of him that he could never live up to. Although he had a wide social circle of artists, writers and various hangers-on, he struggled to find his place in the world.
Max Egremont’s affectionate biography describes his austere living conditions at 54 Tufton Street – near neighbour to the building that today hosts secretive right-wing think-tanks – where he lived from 1919. In a House of Commons debate six years earlier, the area had been described as one of the most evil slums in Westminster, and it was still run-down when Sassoon moved in.
He shared the house with the poet Walter Turner and Turner’s wife Delphine. Sassoon had two small rooms, few possessions and no kitchen of his own. He produced journalism and worked as the literary editor of the Labour-supporting Daily Herald, but found it hard to write creatively: “The chimes of Big Ben tormented the insomniac Sassoon through the small hours,” wrote Egremont. Sassoon moved out of the Tufton Street house in 1925 when the rows between Walter and Delphine became too much.
The house was all but destroyed during World War II. But down Bennett’s Yard, next to the building now on the site where it stood and behind an imposing brick wall, you will be able to make out a large plane tree that was grown in the garden of the old house and is known locally as “the Sassoon tree”. The planting of memorial trees, particularly plane trees (they grow quickly and are resilient to urban life) to honour those who gave their lives became popular after 1918, and many towns and cities, not just in England, supported them.
Folklore has it that Winston Churchill planted the tree himself to commemorate those who had lost their lives, though there is no hard evidence to support the story. Nevertheless, in 1950 Westminster Council drew up plans to create a peace garden around the tree. These fizzled out, yet many people kept returning to leave mementos and scraps of poetry to celebrate Sassoon.
In the mid-1990s Westminster Council took steps to encourage redevelopment of the immediate vicinity. The Thorney Island Society opposed the proposal for shops, offices and flats on the grounds that it would sweep away examples of architecture from the 1760s through to the 1930s, including the Fleece public house, which was built in Georgian times and an important meeting place for the suffrage movement.
The Society came forward with its own, more sympathetic, proposals, but the battle with the planners and developers came to focus on saving the tree and ensuring public access to it. Led by indefatigable co-founder June Stubbs, a broad range of interested parties were contacted for support and to help with the lobbying. Stubbs marshalled her forces, contacting MPs, Lords, historical societies, Sassoon’s old regiment, the Chelsea Pensioners, even the Queen Mother. But the council pushed back, arguing that it was unclear that the tree was even designated a war memorial.
A compromise was eventually agreed with the developers: the tree would stay, albeit now incorporated into someone’s back garden, and a small, rectangular silver plaque fitted to the adjacent wall in memory of Sassoon and also to Colonel D’Arcy Hall, another recipient of the Military Cross who had lived in Tufton Street, along with “their comrades of the Great War 1914-18.” This smaller tribute is tricky to spot and the wording is now worn, but it’s an endearing token of remembrance.
Richard Derecki is an economist and governance expert who has worked for the 10 Downing Street strategy unit and the Greater London Authority. Follow Richard on Twitter. Photograph from the Thorney Island Society.
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