For Veterans Day: A Wartime Ride

Siegfried Sassoon, by George Charles Beresford (1915)

For this Veterans Day, the houndbloggers return to an old favorite, the English poet Siegfried Sassoon. Among foxhunters, he’s as well known for his delightful and nostalgic prose work Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man as he is among schoolchildren and British historians as one of England’s brilliant War Poets, whose style helped change the trajectory of modern poetry. Sassoon was a passionate foxhunter, especially during his youth and in the years immediately after World War I, though he often felt that the hunting side of his personality tended to distract from the greater work of his life, poetry.

Siegfried Sassoon’s grave at the churchyard in Mells. Photo by Graham Allard.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Sassoon joined up and took his hunter and point-to-point winner Cockbird with him to war. Sassoon wrote a great deal about Cockbird, and his picture can be found in many Sassoon biographies; our favorite is quite a famous picture of Cockbird standing in the Sassoon family’s yard, with Sassoon standing at his head and gazing with obvious pride at his hunting and racing partner. Alongside them is a small side table that, you can tell, has been carried out into the yard especially for the occasion of the photo, for on it is a magnificent silver racing trophy, the Colonel’s Cup–now lost (like Cockbird, alas), whereabouts unknown.

Hounds hunting on Veterans Day 2012.

In honor of Veterans Day, we hope you’ll page back through the blog and see our earlier posts, The Hounds of War: A Veterans Day for Hunting Soldiers and A Hunt for the Veterans. But today we give our page to Sassoon, not for the biting but deeply touching poems he penned in the trenches (some of which you can read here), but for an unusually peaceful wartime passage in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man:

“I was happy as I trudged along the lanes in the column, with my platoon chattering behind me and everything gilt with the sun’s good humour. Happier still when I borrowed the little black mare no one could ride and cantered about the open country by myself, which I did two or three afternoons a week. The black mare was well bred but had lost the use of one eye. She had a queer temper and had earned an evil reputation by kicking various officers off or bolting back to the transport lines with them after going half a mile quite quietly. She was now used as a pack-pony for carrying ammunition, but by gentle treatment I gained her confidence and she soon became a sort of active-service echo of my old favourites. Dick rode out with me as often as he could persuade the Transport Officer to let him have a horse.

Our Iroquois Sassoon, now retired, named after the poet.

“When riding alone I explored the country rather absent-mindedly, meditating on the horrors which I had yet to experience: I was unable to reconcile that skeleton certainty with the serenities of this winter landscape–clean-smelling, with larks in the sky, the rich brown gloom of distant woods, and the cloud shadows racing over the lit and dappled levels of that widespread land. And then I would pass a grey-roofed chateau, with its many windows and no face there to watch me pass. Only a bronze lion guarding the well in the middle of an overgrown lawn, and the whole place forlorn and deserted. Once, as I was crossing the main road from Abbeville to Beauvais, I watched the interminable column of a French army corps which was moving southward. For the first I saw the famous French field-guns–the ’75s.’

“But even then it wasn’t easy to think of dying. … Still less so when Dick was with me, and we were having an imitation hunt. I used to pretend to be hunting a pack of hounds, with him as my whipper-in. Assuming a Denis Milden manner (Denis was at Rouen with the cavalry and likely to remain there, in spite of the CO’s assumptions about open warfare), I would go solemnly through a wood, cheering imaginary hounds. After an imaginary fox had been found, away we’d scuttle, looking in vain for a fence to jump, making imaginary casts after an imaginary check, and losing our fox when the horses had done galloping. An imaginary kill didn’t appeal, somehow. Once, when I was emerging rapidly from a wood with loud shouts, I came round a corner and nearly knocked the Brigadier off his horse. He was out for a ride with his staff-captain; but no doubt he approved of my sporting make-believe, and I didn’t dare stop for apologies, since the Brigadier was a very great man, indeed. Dick enjoyed these outings enormously and was very much impressed by my hunting noises. The black mare seemed to enjoy it also.”

The guns in the wood. The Royal Artillery Hunt still hunts (within the law) on Salisbury Plain, not far from Sassoon’s former home at Heytesbury.

Years after the Great War, when Sassoon was living in Heytesbury, Wiltshire, and still hunting now and again with the packs around Salisbury Plain, there was a touching moment caught by Alec Waugh. Waugh, brother of the author Evelyn Waugh (of Brideshead Revisited fame, among many other wonderful books), recounted it in his book My Brother Evelyn and Other Portraits:

“I last saw Sassoon in October 1940 under ironically appropriate circumstances.

“A few weeks earlier I had been posted as staff-captain to the Petroleum Warfare Department, a branch of the Ministry of Mines, that under the dynamic inspiration of Geoffrey Lloyd made a considerable contribution to the war effort. … At that time we were chiefly concerned with the defensive uses to which oil might be put, flame-throwers, tank traps, flame on water. In mid-October we went down into the country to give a demonstration.

“It was what is called a typical, which is to say it was an exceptional, late autumn day; a day that started with mist and a chill in the air, a mist through which the sunlight began to break about eleven. By noon it was  summer hot. It was the prefect day to drive down into the country with a team of cameramen to film the demonstration and it was a perfect picnic site that had been chosen for the demonstration, at the head of a valley, with the grass very green with dew and the trees red and brown and yellow and the spire of a church showing between the branches of an orchard.

“We got down early, set out our cameras, and waited. The blitz had been heavy on the previous night. It was a relief to lie out in the grass, with the sun warm upon our faces, in a countryside untouched by war. The valley was quiet and deserted: nothing dramatic in the country’s history had happened here. It was strange to reflect that within an hour its slopes would be lined with red-hatted officers; a whistle would blow, the handles of the cameras would turn, and explosion would follow on explosion, the soft greensward would be scorched and ripped and scattered into a desert of smouldering fires and scarred iron.

Our horse Sassoon, also named for the poet and foxhunting man.

“The demonstration started at two o’clock. Within a quarter of an hour the beauty of the valley was destroyed and it was just as the high grade staff officers were moving to their cars, as the final informal conferences were breaking up, that a horseman, a civilian, came trotting by. This was, no doubt, a favorite ride of his. He had had no idea that this demonstration was to be held. It could scarcely be a pleasant surprise for him. I looked up, to note with a start of surprise that it was Sassoon.

“My first instinct was to run across and greet him; but a second, wiser instinct checked me. There was an inscrutable expression on that drawn, handsome face as it looked down on the charred and littered grass.

“What thoughts, I wondered, were moving behind that mask: how many different thoughts must be creating a mixed mood–memories of the last war and his revolt against it, his contempt for ‘scarlet majors at the base,’ his poems that had seemed then and later the battle call to a crusade; the sacrifice of his generation that had failed to prevent this second war, whose intensified horror was exemplified by these new engines of destruction, with himself a quarter of a century later, in his fifties and too old for service?

“It was kinder to leave him to that mood, those memories.”