Siegfried Sassoon, Fox-Hunting, and the Great War

1. Some NSLM Holdings

            As a quick search of the collection reveals, the National Sporting Library holds some 956 books on “fox-hunting,” ranging in date from J. Roberts, An Essay on Hunting (1733) to Alastair Jackson, Lady of the Chase: The Life and Hunting Diaries of Daphne Moore (2018). Anyone likely to be visiting this website will know all the familiar names, from the prolific Nimrod and Robert Smith Surtees, to the less widely published William Scarth Dixon and Willoughby de Broke, Richard Greville Verney, to writers primarily known for one seminal work: Anthony Trollope, Hunting Sketches (1865), or George Whyte-Melville, Riding Recollections (1878).

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An Essay on Hunting by a Country Squire (1820). Gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

The Library’s holdings from the 20th century alone total an impressive 602 works. They also include many by familiar names, such as the “standards” J. Stanley Reeve and A. Henry Higginson or, more recently, Michael Clayton and Alexander Mackay-Smith, as well as a number of influential works by women writers, such as Lady Diana Shedden and Lady Apsley, “To Whom The Goddess . . .”—Hunting and Riding for Women (1932), Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood, Hoofs in the Distance (1953), and E.V.A. Christy, Cross-Saddle and Side-Saddle (1932), one of many books on equitation that include the demands of riding across country.

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Many of the 20th century works, most of them held by NSLM, date to the interwar years. Citing 177 examples, Anne Grimshaw has estimated that books specifically on hunting published in England between 1919 and 1945 accounted for “25% of the total output of equestrian literature” (Grimshaw, 160). They include at least one title of signal literary merit: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, published by the distinguished poet Siegfried Sassoon in 1928 as the first volume of what would become a Great War trilogy, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (1937).

 

2. Sassoon and Sherston

siegfried_sassoon_by_george_charles_beresford_(1915)
Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (1886-1967), poet and novelist, platinum print, wearing military uniform with the collar badges of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and hat, Beresford’s stamp and copyright line on verso, 6 x 4½ in (15.2 x 11.5 cm). Accessed via Wikimedia Commons, January 2019.

Though primarily known as a “Great War Poet,” Sassoon joins Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden as one of the most important British memoirists to have served on the Western Front.[1] In addition to three volumes of non-fictional memoirs, Sassoon published the three volumes of fictional memoirs that constitute the Sherston trilogy: the first two volumes form a clearly linked pair written only two years apart; the much shorter and less fully realized third volume, written four years later, brings the trilogy’s story to a coherent conclusion and provides the vantage from which Sherston narrates it.[2]

In outline, the story is simple. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man tracks Sherston’s evolution as a young rural sportsman to his installation as a newly minted infantry officer in 1914. It concludes with his waking from an idyllic dream of hunt country to a grim view over no man’s land. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer recounts Sherston’s life at the front from 1915 to 1917, including the single-handed attack on a German trench that earns him a Military Cross, and the growing “anti-war bitterness” that issues in his public anti-war statement and the military’s retaliatory diagnosis of him as “shell-shocked.” Sherston’s Progress, finally, limns Sherston’s psychiatric therapy and plumbs the internal conflict that results in his return to action in 1918 and the wound that ended his military service.

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5. Sherston’s Progress by Siegfried Sassoon (1945). Gift of Alexander Mackay-Smith.

The events in Sassoon’s own life and memoirs match those in Sherston’s closely, with the crucial difference, as Sassoon puts it, that “Sherston was a simplified version of my ‘outdoor self.’ He was denied the complex advantage of being a soldier poet” (Siegfried’s Journey, 69). As Sherston puts it, Fox-Hunting Man depends “solely on my experiences as a sportsman,” primarily as horseman, but also as cricketer and golfer. The War, ironically, will fix his one shortcoming: “I had never shot at a bird or an animal in my life, though I’d often felt that my position as a sportsman would be stronger if I were ‘a good man with a gun.’”

3. Horseman and Infantryman

Fox-Hunting Man first appeared anonymously and independently and quickly enjoyed wide acclaim.[3] The reading public in 1928, like many readers in sporting circles today, celebrated it as one of the gently ironic memoirs of fox-hunting published in great numbers in England and America between the wars. Sassoon nominally proffered it as such, but its final chapters, and the subsequent publication of Infantry Officer, make clear that he also intended to draw out parallels between hunting in England and soldiering in France.

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Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon (1929).

The parallelism that Sassoon (and thus Sherston) develops is manifold, complex, nuanced, and ambivalent. It involves, among other things, landscape (rural hunt country and war-torn wasteland), organization (hunt hierarchy and military command), protocols  (hunt etiquette and military rules of procedure), horses (hunters and chargers), and, perhaps most important, the shared values of specialized knowledge and skill and of boldness and courage, and a shared recognition that some acts are irrevocable—Sherston’s facing a big hedge with the feeling “that I was ‘in for it’” foreshadows his feeling when “going over the top.”

At first look, Fox-Hunting Man and Infantry Officer set fox hunting and warfare in opposition. They contrast the freedom of fast and exhilarating movement on horseback over bright and broad fields dotted with woods, hedges, and fences with the confinement of cramped and terrified movement in dark and narrow trenches or on one’s belly through corpse strewn mud. At the same time, however, the books also place hunting and warfare in apposition. They call both hunting and warfare “inhumane” practices that enact ritual killing (albeit of different prey) and that entail attrition of men and horses (albeit incidental as opposed to intrinsic).

Fox-hunting comprises mounted humans following a canine pack chasing vulpine prey across a rural landscape. Sassoon links those essentials both literally and figuratively to corresponding aspects of the Great War. “Wire,” for example, shows up repeatedly in Fox-Hunting Man—in single strands hidden in hedges as “the most dangerous enemy of the hunting-man” and in tangled masses in no man’s land as fatal to wiring parties and wire-cutting patrols alike. The hunter Sherston unhorsed by hidden wire foreshadows the officer Sherston bereaved by a friend’s death on a wiring-party (fall from grace foreshadowing rise toward redemption).

 

4. Hunting and Warfare

If wire binds the parts of the trilogy, the parallelism of hunting and warfare provides its foundation—a parallel that Sassoon, clearly conflicted, both subverts with irony and enforces with nostalgia. Far from inventing this parallel, Sassoon is drawing on an idea prevalent in British military writing in the 17th through 19th centuries: fox-hunting as fit preparation for warfare and leadership in war.[4] While the idea retained vitality through the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, it became moribund as a serious proposition following the mass carnage of the Great War.[5]

For obvious reasons, writers applied the parallel primarily to cavalry, promoting the physical and mental demands of hunting as ideal preparation for the cavalry officer. That advocacy reached its high water mark in E.A.H. Alderson’s Pink and Scarlet, or Hunting as a School for Soldiering (1900), a work directly relevant to the Sherston trilogy since it treats hunting as preparation for “soldiering” in all arms. “The hunting man is already a more than half-made soldier,” Alderson contends, the beneficiary of the “things that hunting cannot help teaching, and the many, many things it may be made to teach if taken in the right way” (Alderson, vii, 13).

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Pink and Scarlet or Hunting as a School for Soldiering by E. A. H. Alderson (1900) and Riding Recollections by G. J. Whyte-Melville (1878). Gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

Sassoon’s trilogy picks up the basic idea as a trope. Tracking Sherston from hunting on an idyllic English landscape to killing on a hellish Western Front, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man strongly implies that hunting could have prepared no one for the uniquely modern horrors of the Great War. Yet Memoirs of an Infantry Officer intimates that hunting was precisely what equipped Sherston with the skill, boldness, and basic recklessness for his battlefield heroics, and Sherston’s Progress strongly implies that hunting also equipped him with the ethics, pluck, and moral courage that demanded and enabled his “progress” to antiwar activism.[6]

The Great War rendered mounted cavalry an anachronism, along with the idea of fox-hunting as preparation for cavalry (and for soldiering in general). A plethora of books published in the postwar moment, however, was reaffirming the fox-hunt as icon of a disappearing rural British culture and its traditional values. Ultimately more elegiac than ironic, Sassoon’s trilogy respected the icon and reflected and promoted the nostalgia. Sassoon, in short, revived a moribund British conflation of sports, notably field sports, and warfare; he buried that conflation under three volumes of irony; but, in the end, he resurrected it.


[1] Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928), Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929), and Sassoon’s Complete Memoirs of George Sherston exemplify the genre. Their stature is no small matter, given the hundreds of Great War memoirs written by eminent British literary and military figures and by veterans and observers of lesser or no renown. For the latter, see Lengel, World War 1 Memories, and Donovan, In Memoriam. Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933) exemplifies Great War memoirs not set at the Front.

[2] Sassoon’s non-fictional memoirs comprise The Old Century and Seven More Years (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942), and Siegfried’s Journey (1946). All six memoirs, those of Sassoon and those of Sherston, were based on extensive diaries kept by Sassoon during the war and its aftermath and posthumously published as Diaries, 1915-1918 (1983), Diaries, 1920-1922 (1981), and Diaries, 1923-1925 (1985).

[3] By 1928, Sassoon was an established and celebrated poet whose work often incorporated fox-hunting, such as the title poem of his first collection, The Old Huntsman and Other Poems (1917).

[4] To cite just two examples, Lewis Edward Nolan writes in Cavalry: History and Tactics (1853) that “the Englishman beats the world in a ride after the hounds and a run across country,” in what he calls “this manly sport—the best of all to form bold riders” (61), and Sir Evelyn Wood adds in Achievements of Cavalry (1897): “We have one incalculable advantage which no other nation possesses, in that our officers are able to hunt” (39).

[5] In the prewar Our Cavalry (1912), for example, M.F. Rimington assesses the right officer material: “We particularly want the hunting breed of man, because he goes into danger for the love of it” (159). And in Modern Cavalry (1922), Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, perhaps the most eloquent of the remaining postwar apologists for the idea, echoes Rimington: “The man who rides into danger for the love of it, the man who keenly enjoys cross-country going and polo, contains in his disposition the germs of success as a cavalry officer” (49).

[6] Sassoon writes in Siegfred’s Journey that his anti-war statement was “a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top,’” both actions “requiring moral courage” (52, 57).

 

WORKS CITED

Alderson, E.A.H. Pink and Scarlet, or Hunting as a School for Soldiering. London: Heinemann, 1900.

Donovan, Tom. In Memoriam: A Bibliography of the Personal Memorial Volumes of the Great War, 1914–1918. Brighton: Tom Donovan Editions, 2015.

Grimshaw, Anne. The Horse: A Bibliography of British Books 1851-1976. London: The Library Association, 1982.

Lengel, Edward. World War 1 Memories: An Annotated Bibliography of Personal Accounts Published in English since 1919. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004.

Nolan, Louis Edward. Cavalry: History and Tactics. 1853. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2007.

Rimington, M.F. Our Cavalry. London: Macmillan, 1912.

Sassoon, Siegfried. Siegfried’s Journey. London: Faber & Faber, 1945.

Sassoon, Siegfried. The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. London: Faber & Faber, 1937.

Wheeler-Nicholson, Malcolm. Modern Cavalry. New York: Macmillan, 1922.

Wood, Sir Evelyn. Achievements of Cavalry. London: George Bell & Sons, 1897.


caramelloCharles Caramello is John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library & Museum and Professor of English at University of Maryland. He is working on a book called Horsemen, Horse Soldiers, and Grand Illusions.

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