Monday, June 06, 2022

When Siegfried Sassoon was in Palestine at the Same Time as Jabotinsky

Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967) was a scion to the wealthy India Jewish merchant family on his father's side with his mother being Anglican, of the Thornycroft farmers whose progeny had turned to becoming sculptors, painters and engineers. He grew up in rural Kent yet his father abandoned the family before Siegfried was five. His education was at Cambridge although he did not formally finish. He played sports, wrote poetry and developed into a homosexual.

He enthusiastically enlisted in the army when war was delcared but his war peorty became predominately critical with biting satire. While convalescing from a wound received at the Arras batle, he came in close contact with a pacifist circle and a protest of his was read out in Parliament in late July 1917 and published in The Times the following day.

And then, he returned to service and

In November 1917, Sassoon was passed fit for service. He was sent to Ireland where he served until February 1918 and was then transferred to Palestine as part of General Allenby’s army. He hated it there and described Jerusalem as ‘not a very holy-looking place’ and referred to the natives as ‘Hebrews’. His vague Jewish connections through his father meant nothing to him. After three months in Palestine, Sassoon returned to the Western Front. 

Sassoon arrived in Palestine on 12 March 1918, some 3 months after Jerusalem had surrendered to Allenby. Sassoon’s unit, the 25th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was stationed north of Ramalleh, near the Jerusalem–Nablus road; by the time Sassoon reached Palestine the unit was engaged in holding the recently-secured line.

According to Siegfried Sassoon and Palestine, these lines:

On the rock-strewn hills I heard

The anger of guns that shook

Echoes along the glen.

In my heart was the song of a bird,

And the sorrowless tale of the brook,

And scorn for the deeds of men.

were written in Palestine, where he was posted for a little over a month in the spring of 1918. 

The details:

On a warm and pleasant morning in March 1918, Sassoon arrived in Gaza on a cattle truck. He had traveled all night with 12 other officers (of the 25th Royal Welch Fusiliers) from base camp in Kantara, Egypt, and was relieved to escape the ragtime tunes and tiresome ribaldry of the mess. From Gaza, whose “fine hills” reminded him of Scotland, he proceeded through almond orchards and olive trees to Ludd, the railhead where soldiers and war supplies arrived and departed. Ludd’s proper name was al-Ludd, an Arabic name because it was then a Palestinian town full of Arabs...

...From al-Ludd, Sassoon and company continued to their final destination — a hilltop village with “dusky, narrow” streets eight miles northwest of Jerusalem. Captured from “Johnny Turk” barely two months earlier and turned into the division headquarters, it was called Ramallah. There was no sound of artillery here, noted Sassoon, and the silent landscape, “hoary in the twilight,” seemed infused with a sad, lonesome air. Few knew then that the document birthing its violent future had already been written....

Jabotinsky, with his 38th Royal Fusieliers were stationed just north at Abuein. 

Sassoon was perhaps the most widely read soldier-poet in England, famous for poems that attacked the country’s incompetent, rum-flushed generals and described in pitiless detail the plight of millions of soldiers stuck in the “plastering slime” of rat-infested trenches. He was even more notorious for bravely protesting the prolongation of the war in a statement that was read out in the House of Commons on July 30, 1917, and published in The Times...

The 31-year-old Sassoon thus arrived in Palestine flushed with celebrity and notoriety. Palestine, he knew, was a “warm-climate sideshow,” and he smarted at the thought of being shunted to guard duty. By the time he arrived, the three Gaza wars had been fought and Jerusalem stormed and won from the Turks by the famous General Edmund Allenby, who, out of respect, dismounted and entered the holy city on foot. Since the action now was mostly defensive — safeguarding the Suez Canal and the oil deposits of the Persian Gulf — Sassoon spent most of his time mending roads littered with the stinking corpses of camels and trampled to “liquid mud” by ambulances and long lines of gray donkeys loaded with army blankets. It was dull, plodding work. He consoled himself by reading War and Peace, but his heavy cold and the incessant rain only worsened his mood. What he did not foresee was how deeply he would fall in love with the natural beauty of Palestine, and how loath he would be to return to the soul-deadening trenches of France when the “ghastly news” arrived that the Germans had broken through Arras.

Slowly, the landscape revealed itself to him, “and what had seemed a cruel, desolate, unhappy region, was now full of a shy and lovely austerity.” Sassoon’s diary — which has just been published online for the first time by the Cambridge University Library — ripples with mentions of wildflowers and croaking frogs, “rocks older than Jerusalem,” and young green wheat against the reddish, stony slopes. He watched the gurgling brown wadis of Ramallah and the fig trees turn into a “green mist.” He wandered the hills bird-watching, counted over 50 different species, and was thrilled when a bulbul gave him “a charming fantasia on the flute.” One day he saw a gazelle trot quietly away and envied it: “a free creature.” An Arab gardener introduced him to “ascadinias” (loquat), and he tramped through “a tangle of huge golden daisies — knee-deep and solid gold, as if Midas had been walking there.” On one serene ramble outside Ramallah he wrote, “I escaped from the war completely for four hours.”

The “anger of guns” he refers to in the sonnet quoted above, which he titled “In Palestine,” was more distant soundtrack than immediate menace. Fashioned after Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” its first stanza tells of thyme-scented hills and rills going their way. It may not be one of his best poems, but it fuses his prewar melodic pastoral style with his bitter contempt of war. Before the war, Sassoon had been, in his own description, “a brainless fox-hunter,” who played cricket and self-published his mediocre poetry. It was the horrors of the Somme that gouged the treacle from his verse and honed him into a fine poet. Though he faced no direct fighting in Palestine, everywhere around him was the grim business of war. “C’est la guerre — in an Old Testament environment,” he noted drily.

...In Sassoon’s scorching parable, Adam stands in for the cynical old politicians who watch their young kill one another. Described as “a brown old vulture in the rain,” Adam ponders over the character of his two sons. He admires Cain, who is “Hungry and fierce with deeds of huge desire,” and despises Abel, “soft and fair — / A lover with disaster in his face.” Adam even justifies Cain’s murdering his own brother because even murder is more tolerable than weakness: “Afraid to fight; was murder more disgrace?” In the end, murder only begets murder, and the vulture finds both his “lovely sons were dead.” What makes this poem a moral grenade is its self-awareness. Sassoon knew that there were bits of Cain and Abel tussling inside him. At the start of the war, he had been a soldier filled with bloodlust, and made quite a reputation for himself for his revenge killings of Germans. But he had also sickened of the slaughter and campaigned for it to stop. In Sassoon’s case, Abel finally won, but the current war, with its far more ancient and complex metabolism, is inevitably stamped with the mark of Cain.