Now most often referred to as “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration” this letter was really a statement that Sassoon issued to his commanding officer, declining to return to duty after he had been on convalescent leave due to contracting gastric fever in August 2016. This refusal to fight was, Sassoon believed, the best way for him to make a stand against the continuation of hostilities as he felt (along with many other people at the time, including Bertrand Russell and John Middleton Murry who helped him prepare the statement) that the War was being continued unnecessarily by the British Government.
His declaration read thus:
Lt. Siegfried Sassoon.
3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
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 the 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 to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the 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 upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.
The original is in the Imperial War Museum, included in the WWI galleries, but this is a scan of one of the copies that were distributed by Sassoon and his helpers to influential people and most of the press offices in the country.
The full statement was published in Bradford Pioneer on July 27 1917 and read out the British House of Commons on July 30. The London Times then printed it the following day.
In order to save Sassoon from either imprisonment or, possibly, death, Robert Graves took it upon himself to inform the authorities that Sassoon was mentally ill, and so unfit to face a court-martial. Whilst Sassoon himself always maintained, privately at least, that he was of entirely sound mind and knew exactly what he was doing, it cannot go unmentioned that he was suffering from nightmares and vivid hallucinations.
This, together with a) the belief that Sassoon had thrown his Military Cross into the Thames* and b) the beguiling argument (to the authorities at least) that classifying him as mentally ill meant that his letter could be dismissed as the unfortunate ravings of a mad man and the press would report on his illness, rather than focus on the contents of the letter, made the authorities listen to Robert and do as he suggested. Thus instead of prison, Sassoon was pack off to Scotland, to Craiglockhart Hospital and treated for shell shock under the care of Doctor Rivers.
Sassoon’s time in Craiglockhart, and his meeting and friendship/relationship with Wilfred Owen, is well documented both by historians and fiction, so I feel no need to detail it again here. I will say that, for me, the best treatment of this time in his life is provided by a work of fiction: the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker. If you would like to immerse yourself in this part of WWI, I heartily recommend you read them.
*he told Graves he had done so and describes it in his book “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”, however it discovered after Sassoon’s only son George died, in the house George inherited from his mother, Sassoon’s ex-wife.