Siegfried Sassoon and Palestine
By Nina MartyrisAugust 19, 2014
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.
SIEGFRIED SASSOON wrote these words not on the Somme but in Palestine, where he was posted for a little over a month in the spring of 1918. He could easily be talking about the vicious war raging across Israel and Gaza’s rocket-strewn hills today. What better time to recall this half-Jewish poet’s Palestinian interlude and searing war poetry than in the midst of a war whose political seeds were sown a hundred years ago, during the First World War, when the bones of the Ottoman Empire were being broken and reset into new mandates and promised lands.
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 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. In 1948, the new state of Israel captured it, expelled its Arab residents, and renamed it Lod, after the biblical city built by the Benjamite, Shemed. Resettled by Jews, it remains an important connective node, housing on its outskirts the Ben Gurion International Airport, flights to which have been stopped after this latest rocket war. Sassoon’s easy journey recalls a time when Gaza was a caravansary through which a train line passed all the way from Jerusalem and Ludd to Kantara. Connectivity and trade were its salient points. Now, of course, it is an al fresco prison, with Israel and Egypt controlling who goes in and what comes out. Gazans have said that the treatment they face at Egyptian checkpoints is as humiliating as at the Israeli ones.
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.
Barely five months before Sassoon set foot in Gaza, the British had issued the Balfour Declaration, a document that would become the charter for the modern state of Israel. It declared that the British government viewed with favor “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People.” What had so long been a pipe dream for the Zionists suddenly became a graspable reality. Shortly before this, the British had also made secret promises to the Arabs of an independent state (which the Arabs assumed would include Palestine) if in return they helped the British overthrow the Turks; this the Arabs did by rallying behind that diminutive desert boulevardier who was Sassoon’s great friend, Lawrence of Arabia. The Balfour Declaration and the promise made to the Arabs were contradictory and adversarial, but since oil and empire were at stake, the Brits decided to keep calm and carry on.
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. He also threw the purple ribbon of his Military Cross into the Mersey River. Sassoon would have been court-martialed for his non serviam, even possibly hanged or shot, except that his friend, the soldier-poet Robert Graves, intervened and convinced his senior officers that Sassoon was suffering shell shock. Eager to hush up the affair — at six foot two, with his aquiline profile and bravery medal, Sassoon was quite the dashing war hero — the military packed him off to recuperate at a war hospital outside Edinburgh. Frustrated that his protest had been neutralized, he demanded that he be sent back to the front. Eventually he was, only to Palestine, not France.
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.
Sassoon’s father, Alfred, came from an Orthodox Iraqi Jewish family that had settled in Bombay and become so fabulously rich on opium and cotton that they were known as the Rothschilds of the East. The family claimed to be descended from King David. But Alfred was ostracized for marrying an Anglican, and so Sassoon was cut off from his Jewish heritage. All his life, he was aware of his insider-outsider status, something his resonant name captured so well: Sassoon drew attention to his Jewish ancestry, and Siegfried to being named after a character from a Wagner opera, in a century soon to be scarred by Hitler’s murderous, Wagner-inflected anti-Semitism. Born in 1886, in the same year as David Ben-Gurion, Sassoon lived to see the state of Israel established, and died in 1967, a few months after the Six-Day War. But Zionism never drew him, and in the last decade of his life, he converted to Roman Catholicism. The closest he came to being in touch with his Jewishness was during his Palestine posting. Jerusalem left him cold — “Not a very holy-looking place,” was all he had to say about it — but the ancient hills, terraces, and rich bird life of the countryside made his heart sing. He called Palestine his “Arcadia.”
To read Sassoon on war is to read about Israel and Gaza today. After he left Palestine, he wrote a tightly crafted sonnet called “Ancient History” on the fratricidal nature of war, told through the allegory of Cain and Abel. Ironically, that same story of brotherly murder provided the name of Israel’s Operation Brother’s Keeper, launched to search the West Bank for the three Israeli teenagers whose abduction and murder sparked the ongoing clash. 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.
The Gaza war has been fought as much with rocket fire and rhetoric as with cameras that have smote the world’s conscience with streams of pictures of Palestinian families half-buried under rubble. During the First World War, press coverage of the front was strictly monitored, and only photographs of dead Germans were allowed to be published in the British newspapers. In the absence of cameras there were war poems. Radicalized by the Somme, Sassoon wrote “Counter-Attack,” his most graphic war poem, one that Winston Churchill is supposed to have memorized. It painted so vivid a picture of the trenches that it was as if the Somme had taken selfies:
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began, — the jolly old rain!
“My trench-sketches were like rockets, sent up to illuminate the darkness,” Sassoon said, using an analogy that has a bitter resonance in the current conflict dominated by rockets and tunnels. Not much has changed in a hundred years. If human shields are being used today — and they are, by both sides — both sides in the First World War used cannon fodder. Sassoon describes soldiers as “Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad,” evoking the image of Palestinian youth upholstered with bombs and sent out to kill themselves and Israeli civilians in coffee shops and at bus stops. It also evokes the grief-crazed eyes of Palestinian children whose families have been wiped out by Israeli rockets and gunfire. If the First World War combined modern technology like mustard gas and zeppelins with medieval bayonet combat, the Israel-Palestine conflict has long reflected a similar mix: an iron dome on the one hand, stones on the other. The stone has a moral place in the Jewish fighting manual. It was with a stone that the righteous David felled Goliath. Roles have evidently been reversed since then, because, for some time now, it’s the Palestinians who’ve been throwing stones, and the stone’s technological near-equivalent, their ineffective rockets. Rockets sent up with the intention of killing Israelis no doubt, but also, in the despairing words of Sassoon, to “illuminate the darkness” in a trench called Gaza.
Nina Martyris has written for several publications including The Times of India, The Guardian, The New Republic, Slate, Salon and The Millions.
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