This Day in Jewish History

1886: 'Mad Jack,' a Warrior Hero Who Wrote Poetry, Is Born

A brave man who singlehandedly stormed an enemy trench, Siegfried Sassoon wrote about the evil of war, for which pains he was treated as shell-shocked.

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (1886-1967), poet and novelist, platinum print, wearing military uniform with the collar badges of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and hat
Wikimedia Commons

September 8, 1886, is the birthdate of Siegfried Sassoon, descendant of the legendary, eponymous Jewish merchant family, who became one of the most notable English warrior-poets to emerge from the Great War.

Siegfried’s father was Alfred Ezra Sasson (1861-1895), whose grandfather, the Baghdad-born David Sassoon, had fled anti-Jewish persecution in Iraq for Bombay in 1832. From there, he started a shipping and manufacturing empire that would span the globe.

Alfred Ezra Sassoon was the son of David Sassoon’s third son, Sassoon David Sassoon. But when he married outside the Jewish faith, to Theresa Thornycroft, from a well-known family of English sculptors, Alfred Ezra was disinherited.

Siegfried Loraine Sasson was the oldest of Alfred and Theresa’s three boys, and was named for the hero of Richard Wagner’s operas, which Theresa greatly loved. His parents separated when Siegfried was 4.

'Mad Jack' goes to war

Siegfried was educated at the New Beacon School and Marlborough College, and attended Clare College, at the University of Cambridge, from 1905 to 1907. After leaving school, he spent his time playing cricket, hunting and writing, supported by an allowance from his family. He published his first book of poetry in 1913.

Sassoon joined the Sussex Yeomanry shortly before the outbreak of World War I, but his participation in the fighting was delayed after he broke his arm while riding, and only in May 1915 did he receive his commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

The same month that Sassoon was dispatched to France, November 1915, his brother Hamo was killed in the Battle of Gallipoli, a loss that affected Siegfried deeply.

Siegfried Sassoon (front) with his brother Hamo and other students on the morning after a May Ball at Cambridge University in 1906.
Imperial War Museums, Wikimedia Commons

As a soldier, Siegfried showed great heroism, in particular when he singlehandedly stormed a German trench, manned by 60 enemy soldiers, along the Hindenburg Line.

In his war memoir, “Goodbye to All That,” Sassoon’s friend Robert Graves wrote of Sassoon’s bravery and the confidence that he inspired in his men. Along with their confidence, however, Sassoon’s “manic courage,” wrote Graves, led them to nickname him “‘Mad Jack’ for his near-suicidal exploits.”

Shot in the head

By 1917, as the war dragged on and he lost more friends and comrades, Sassoon became disillusioned. Home on leave that June, he decided not to return to the front. Instead he wrote an open letter to his commander, “Finished with the War,” which was published in The Times and read aloud in Parliament, in which he stated that, what had started “as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” He could no longer, he said, “be a party to prolong those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.”

Instead of subjecting him to a court martial, the authorities decided to treat Sassoon as someone suffering from shell shock and sent him to Craiglockart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, for treatment.

There he became close friends with Wilfred Owen, also one of the war’s great poets, who died the following year in France, after both he and Sassoon returned to active duty.

Sassoon spent some time in Palestine before returning to the front again; when he was shot in the head, he returned to England for good. There he became literary editor of the socialist paper the Daily Herald.  

Siegfried’s aunt Rachel Sassoon Beer, was, like her brother Abraham Ezra, disowned by the family when she married out of the faith, in her case to Frederick Arthur Beer, and converted. Rachel served as editor of the Sunday Times, which belonged to the Beer family. When she died in 1927, she left the bulk of her estate to her nephew, making it possible for Siegfried to purchase Heytesbury House, an estate in Wiltshire, where he could live the rest of his life without having to worry about income.

He was openly bisexual, during a period when this was far from socially acceptable. In 1933, he did marry, and he and his wife, Hester Gatty, had a son, George, before separating, in 1945.

Sassoon published many volumes of poetry, and several autobiographical novels. He died on September 1 1967, having become a Roman Catholic toward the end of his life.