In July 1917 Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’ was published in a number of local UK newspapers, The Times, and was subsequently read out in Parliament. Sassoon wrote this letter to his Commanding Officer whilst recovering from injuries at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh he received when serving as a Captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers on the Western Front in France. Whilst in hospital Sassoon met many pacifists including Bertrand Russell. He also met fellow poet and officer Wilfred Owen.
In the letter Sassoon claimed that the government was unnecessarily prolonging the war.
The letter caused outrage in the upper classes, government, and newspapers. It said what many privately thought but were afraid to say in public. Sassoon was from a wealthy family and a decorated war hero, and as a serving officer and decorated war hero was the opposite from the image of a pacifist/conscientious objector that the media and government attempted to create.
Sassoon expected to be subject to a Court Martial, but aware of the publicity this would cause instead the War Office convened medical board and declared Sassoon medically unfit due to shell shock. While in Liverpool for the medical board Sassoon threw the ribbon from his Military Cross into the Mersey. The medical board’s conclusion managed to limit the negative publicity as Sassoon could be excused due to mental problems. In 1917 a person suffering from mental health issues was stigmatised and heavily discriminated against.
Although Sassoon returned to the front in 1918, he remained very much of the opinion that never again should such slaughter occur, and that jingoism had no place in a modern society.
Modern parallels to the actions of Sassoon are actions taken by members of Veterans for Peace UK. For example, SAS Trooper Ben Griffin refused to go back to the war in Iraq, informing his Commanding Officer that it was wrong to fight in an illegal war and that the tactics employed by the US special forces command he served under were fundamentally wrong.
Members of VFP UK discarded their medals, as Sassoon did, outside Downing Street in July 2015, rejecting the same jingoism that Sassoon rejected.
Sassoon’s declaration in full:
‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible for them to be changed without our knowledge, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
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.
I am not protesting against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them. Also, I believe that it may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.’