Siegrfried Sassoon’s World War 1 poems sometimes point out the horror and suffering of war, sometimes its futility and sometimes its pathetic absurdity. This poem is in the third category, with the title “The Hero” completely ironic, following the wishful thinking of society in categorizing all who fought, were wounded or killed in the war as heroes, irrespective of whether they took part willingly and irrespective of the manner of their injury or death. Regrettably, this attitude still prevails today when the slightest hint of calling into question the contribution and conduct of members of the military is immediately stigmatised as unpatriotic.
The poem describes the scene when the mother of the soldier, Jack, receives the news that her son has been killed in the war. The story is told simply, increasing its effectiveness in conveying the huge divide between self-deception and reality.
‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.
He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
The first stanza describes the reaction of Jack’s mother on hearing the news. It is full of genteel respectability, imagining her son has died a noble and worthwhile death, grateful for the attention of a letter from his
Colonel, convincing herself that she is proud of her son. That is too often what people do in the face of such news, they find comfort in acceptance and admiration rather than let their hurt and anger come forth.
The second stanza reveals that the Office who brought the news knows that it is all deception, empty words which must be said so as not to confront the realities of death in war and so as not to provoke a questioning of the whole enterprise.
And then the third stanza reveals the actual truth about the death of Jack – killed in a panic while trying to get out of the way of the conflict, to get sent home, to avoid the mine that killed him. In the game of survival he lost, and everybody will convince themselves that he was a hero. Sassoon knew that being a hero was irrelevant, only death counted.
The Poetry Dude