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Siegfried Sassoon

(1886 - 1967)
By Martin Sugarman

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon was born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother and grew up in Kent, England.  His father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon (1861–1895), son of Sassoon David Sassoon, was a member of the wealthy Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family. For marrying outside the Jewish faith, Alfred was disinherited. Siegfried’s mother, Theresa, belonged to the Thornycroft family, sculptors responsible for many of the best-known statues in London.

Sassoon was educated at the New Beacon School, Sevenoaks, Kent; at Marlborough College, Wiltshire; and at Clare College, Cambridge, where from 1905 to 1907 he read history. He left Cambridge without a degree and spent the years after 1907 hunting, playing cricket, and writing verse, some of which he published privately.

Although his father had been disinherited, Siegfried had a small private income that allowed him to live modestly without having to earn a living. Later, he was left a large legacy by an aunt.

Sassoon joined the army just before World War I. He was sent to France and, during the fighting, engaged in what his poet friend Robert Graves described as suicidal feats of bravery. He was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches.

Though he remained in the army, Sassoon became horrified by the realities of war, and in 1917 publicly came out against the conduct of the war in a letter that was read in Parliament. After the war he focused more on his writing. In 1919, he became literary editor of the socialist Daily Herald

His first published success, The Daffodil Murderer, was a parody of John Masefield’s The Everlasting Mercy. Graves, in Good-Bye to All That, describes it as a “parody of Masefield which, midway through, had forgotten to be a parody and turned into rather good Masefield.”

While touring the United States, he wrote his first novel, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), a fictionalized autobiography. He subsequently wrote Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston's Progress (1936). He also wrote a three-volume autobiography – The Old CenturyThe Weald of Youth, and Siegfried’s Journey.

Sassoon was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1951. He died from stomach cancer on September 1, 1967, one week before his 81st birthday.

1In mitigation of his youthful arrogance, we should bear in mind that the very famous Jewish graphic artist and later war artist Barnett Freedman[1], was commissioned to illustrate his great book Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and that Siegfried’s post-1945 American publishers Simon and Schuster[2], were Jewish - as was his close friend and patron Leo “Frankie” Schuster.[3] In addition, his first UK publisher, Heinemann, was also a Jewish – albeit assimilated – publishing house. Sassoon simply denied that he was “a typical Jew” and did not want to be associated with the richer Jews of that later Victorian period who were indeed flamboyant and ostentatious, two characteristics he disliked of anybody, Jewish or not.

Sassoon was also subjected to much anti-Semitism and discrimination and was regarded by his peers as Jewish. Indeed, he was emphatic, for example, that he experienced great consolation when in the company of Jews, writing; “nice Jews make me feel more comfortable than anyone else”[4] – something, which if we are honest, many Jews would agree with, as well as its opposite! Most importantly, losing his father when his parents divorced at the  age of five (he later died of TB when Siegfried was nine), many writers have noted that this meant he was denied access to his Jewish heritage, which kept him from understanding this most crucial part of his origins.

In his 1918 verse letter, “I’d timed my death in action to the minute,” he tells Robert Graves (who several times borrowed money from him):

Yes, you can touch my Banker when you need him:
Why keep a Jewish friend unless you bleed him?

Siegfried clearly believed, at least at this point (and he was in a bad mental state at the time) that even his friends stereotyped him and that his Jewish background added to his sense of being an outsider.[5]

One of his biographers, J.S. Roberts,[6] points out that Sassoon later regretted neglecting his Jewish roots. In his later years, he told friends how his paternal side had given him his religious, poetic, and prophetic insights and there was resurgent emphasis on his Jewish ancestry.

In 1958, he wrote “ You are right about my inheritance. I sometimes surmise that my eastern ancestry is stronger in me than the Thornycrofts . . . the daemon [supernatural inspiration and spirit] in me is Jewish.”

In World War II his writings were on Hitler’s list of banned works, and this made him more conscious of his Jewishness. His hatred of Hitler’s anti-Semitism was intense. He readily identified and sympathized with the Jews. He often met and talked at length with the Zionist leader and historian, Lewis Namier, and one of the only aspects of WWII he wrote about was the horror of Belsen, describing to his mother in Old Testament terms, the struggle between Light and Darkness against Hitler.

His son George, adored by his father, was intensely interested in things Jewish, writing on Jewish Biblical texts, including the Kabbalah, and strongly disapproved of the conversion of his father to Catholicism. As a child he said he dreamt the Nazis would take his father away because “he was a Jewish intellectual.”

Siegfried was indeed complex and contradictory – wealthy fox-hunter, yet socialist; homosexual, yet married; decorated war hero, yet anti-war - a product of his times but still half ours, and probably more so than he would admit to his upper class, intellectual non-Jewish circle. The respect for his work is reflected by the inscription of his name in Poets’ Corner in Westminister Abbey.

Footnote – the myth of Siegfried throwing his MC into the Mersey was resolved when it was found together with his revolver and other items, in the effects of his son after he died in Mull, Scotland in 2006; it now resides in the Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers

[1] Barnett Freedman 1901-1958. See

[2] Simon & Schuster, Inc., nowadays a division of CBS Corporation, was founded in New York in 1924 by Richard L. Simon and M. Lincoln ("Max") Schuster.

[3] “Frankie” Schuster (18521927) gave Siegfried his first car as a gift in 1924, and also allowed him free use of his country retreat at Bray-on-Thames.

[4] See the online article by Jonathan Wilson, “Soldier, Poet, Horseman” on the website nextbook: A New Read on Jewish Culture at

[5] Siegfried Sassoon: The War Poems, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (Faber 1983), p.131. Thanks to Meg Crane for this insight.

[6] Siegfried Sassoon (London 1998) pp.1, 3, 319.

Additional Source Material: Siegfried Sassoon, Wikipedia.

Photo: George Charles Beresford, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.