Suicide in the trenches (a poem by Siegfried Sassoon)
Suicide in the trenches is a sobering war poem written by Siegfried Sassoon, a man deeply scarred by the first world war who expressed the horror and confusion of battle and death by using his ability to write raw, visceral poetry that lingered on in the minds of most who read it.
The text I will be studying describes a boy who is happy and full of ignorant joy and innocence, a boy who stupidly believes in the glory and fairness of war and the same boy who later kills himself in the muddy hell of the front line trenches. I would recommend the poem to anyone who believes that war is honorable and glorious as this poem will easily persuade you otherwise.
The poem begins with a young man, who i believe is from Sassoon’s first-hand experience of a fellow soldier committing suicide. A boy content and happy, is fueled by propaganda and shipped off to fight in one of the most destructive and merciless wars in human history. This same boy who “grinned at life in empty joy” and “slept soundly through the lonesome dark” is like a child without a care in the world but is yet to know the painful reality he has brought upon himself.
The boy also “whistled early with the lark” made me feel that he was a young man full of energy and hope looking for adventure and new worldly experiences that will make him a man. It hints at the innocence and bravado of youth that was the driving force for young men to enlist. All in an age where war was glorified by hero’s, uniforms, medals and stories of bravery. Nowadays propaganda is less common in society and people no longer glorify war, knowing the endless killing of soldiers is never the best path to victory. This mostly due to education being of a much higher standard and the global trade network between almost every country, rendering war over land or supplies pointless.
However the second stanza made me feel the sadness and desperation of the depressing and terrible trench warfare which shocked and surprised me. The boy is “in winter trenches, cowed and glum with crumps and lice and lack of rum”. Gives me an impression that the boy’s hopes of fighting bravely for his country in a fair and honorable war have been dashed. He has developed a new, darker perception of the world due to his experiences of friends being torn to shreds by machine guns and bombs and simply cannot cope with the incessant violence of modernized warfare.
I believe the mention of “rum” in this sentence represents the soldiers only coping mechanism at that time as there was no such thing as therapy or emotional support and nobody could recognize the symptoms of depression or PTSD. The only option was drinking away your sadness. Once the boy’s way of coping ran out he became lost in his own little world of horrors and the only way to escape was suicide; “He put a bullet through his brain. No one spoke of him again”. The Military that exists today is much different, as doctors are able to notice symptoms much earlier and soldiers are able to be removed from battle in order to recover, unlike world war one where deserting soldiers were shot. Not only is our mental health treatment better, our ability to heal injured soldiers has also advanced dramatically with men being able to get prosthetic legs and modern surgery, improving their ability to cope.
In the third stanza the poet seems to write directly to the reader and the war hungry society of the time, in an attempt to enlighten the public and express his anger and frustration directly to them. “You smug faced crowds with kindling eye, Who cheer when soldier lads march by” is almost a direct insult towards the masses and shows the reader his shear frustration with the ignorance of civilians who have never experienced war and could never comprehend the horrors he has witnessed in the frontline trenches.
Once the poet has shocked the reader with the sudden change from blissful happiness to deep depression and suicide Sassoon hammers it home with a final powerful line that solidifies his already strong argument; “Sneak home and pray you’ll never know The hell where youth and laughter go.” This indicates again that the public are unaware about what is happening on the frontline of battle, which is still seen in modern times where lots of things happening in syria and other middle eastern countries are kept in the dark. However keeping information secret from the public is getting harder as the invention of the internet and instant information via television or phone call has made us more aware of the state of war in such countries.
This poem conjured thoughts of how blissful innocence can be destroyed by war and how changed and mentally damaged a person can become due to it. It shows how angry and emotional the subject made the poet and how blind the public were at that time, so Sassoon created a poem that transported his anger to the reader and made them feel a similar pain to what he felt in the midst of a truly terrible war.