The personal diaries and illustrations of one of the First World War’s most celebrated poets have been released by Cambridge University Library, offering unnerving insight into life in the trenches.
Siegfried Sassoon’s First World War diaries, sketches and poetry – some bearing traces of mud from the Somme – are among 4,100 pages from his personal archive being made freely available online 100 years since Britain declared war on Germany.
The journals, some of them covered in spilled wax, presumably as Sassoon sat writing in his dug-out by candlelight, give fascinating insight into daily life in the trenches. Sassoon described the first day of the Somme as a “sunlit picture of hell” and the diaries also record the moment he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Arras, as well as his own psychological profile of ‘the soul of an officer’. The poems include previously unpublished material along with early drafts of some of his best-known works, including an early version of The Dug-Out with an additional, excised verse.
Cambridge University Library is home to the world’s foremost collection of Sassoon material, and has digitised 23 of Sassoon’s journals and two of his wartime poetry notebooks. They are now available to all via the Cambridge Digital Library, where they sit alongside the papers of Sir Isaac Newton and other priceless treasures of the library’s collections.
Cambridge University librarian, Anne Jarvis, said: “From his Soldier’s Declaration to his eyewitness accounts of the first day of the Battle on the Somme, the Sassoon archive is a collection of towering importance, not just to historians, but to anyone seeking to understand the horror, bravery and futility of the First World War as experienced by those on the front lines and in the trenches.”
Attack by Siegfried Sassoon
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
From First World War Poems, edited by Jane McMorland Hunter (© National Trust 2014).
Fore more information on Sassoon’s war diaries, visit cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk.
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