Robert Graves Hero Image

Saving Sassoon

One of Robert’s great strengths was always the whole-hearted way in which he threw himself into whatever he was doing; but this meant that he was sometimes a man of extremes; and his ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to friendship is vividly highlighted by the contrast between his sudden and complete abandonment of Johnstone, and the heroic efforts which he made to save Sassoon.

On Thursday 12 July 1917, the day that Robert wrote his worried letter to Eddie Marsh, Sassoon had received a telegram ordering him to report at once to Litherland.255 When he did so, on Friday the 13th,256 he received a surprisingly warm welcome. The Colonel was away on leave, but had left his senior major as acting C.O. with clear instructions. Sassoon should be asked to withdraw his ultimatum and told that if he did so, the whole incident would be forgotten

Sassoon refused. His aim was to gain maximum publicity for his stand against the war by forcing the army to court-martial him, and when he refused, he did so fully expecting and indeed hoping to be placed under arrest. Instead, he was told to stay quietly at an hotel in Liverpool until higher authority had been consulted.

In the meantime, Robert had decided on a course of action. First he wrote to the senior major -not knowing that he was acting C.O. – asking him to persuade the Colonel to see things ‘in a reasonable light’. Sassoon was clearly ill, and must be protected from himself. Robert received in reply ‘a most kind sympathetic letter…saying that Siegfried would be ordered a Medical Board and the best would be done to treat the whole thing as a medical case’..257

Robert’s next step was ‘to get out of Osborne’ so that he could ‘attend to things’.

He knew that he was by no means well enough to leave the convalescent home, but he persuaded a Medical Board to pass him as fit for home service. They allowed him to leave Osborne on the morning of Monday 16 July, and Robert wired the news to APG, who met his cab coming up Wimbledon Hill.

On Tuesday morning Robert went into town to discuss Siegfried’s case with some of those who knew him best. First he lunched with Eddie Marsh -now intending to use six of Robert’s poems in his next volume of Georgian Poetry -and then he kept an appointment to meet Robert Ross. Graves had to tell Ross that he had no up-to-date news. He had not yet received a letter written to him by Siegfried on Sunday night, which had arrived at Osborne after his departure; nor could he have known that Sassoon had now been ordered to appear before a Medical Board, but had torn up the order, and had then spent the rest of the day learning poems by heart so that he would have something to recite in prison.

On Wednesday 18 July Robert arrived at Litherland, where the situation was serious. The Colonel was now back from leave, and had already told Sassoon that his failure to appear before a Medical Board meant that matters would soon be beyond his control. A court-martial seemed inevitable. Robert immediately went to call on Sassoon, whom he found looking ‘very ill; he told me that he had just been down to the Formby links and thrown his Military Cross into the sea.’258

The two men talked together for a long time. Robert made it clear that he agreed with Siegfried about the futility of the war, but tried to persuade him not to persist with his defiance: it would do nothing to end the war, and would be regarded as a betrayal by his comrades-in-arms. This line of argument made no impact upon Sassoon, and Graves began to realize that it would be impossible to sway him from his self-destructive course of action so long as he believed that he could compel the army to court-martial him. Graves knew that Ross had obtained a ‘promise of powerful help if necessary at the War Office’ ;259 and in what he did next he felt perfectly justified by the overriding necessity of rescuing Sassoon from a further ordeal which might permanently unbalance him.

First Robert declared that Siegfried would be locked in a lunatic asylum if he persisted, and that ‘nothing would induce them to court-martial [him]. It had all been arranged with some big bug at the War Office in the last day or two.’ Then, when Siegfried pressed him on this point, Robert swore on an imaginary Bible that what he had said was true. Sassoon saw that in the circumstances his struggle was futile. He immediately gave way, and agreed to go before a Medical Board. The strain on his nerves had already been enormous, and now he felt ‘a sense of exquisite relief’ that it was all over. 260

The very next day a Medical Board was convened and Robert, giving evidence as a friend of the patient, helped to convince its members that Sassoon was in a state of mental collapse. Robert’s own nerves had been affected by his efforts to help Sassoon. and he burst into tears three times in the course of his statement. As he left the room the psychologist who was present said to him: ‘Young man, you ought to be before this board yourself.’261 But that evening Graves could write triumphantly to Marsh : My dear Eddie, It’s all right about Siegfried. After awful struggling with everybody (I arrived at 59 minutes past the eleventh hour) I’ve smoothed it all down and he’s going away cheerfully to a home at Edinboro’. I’ve written to the pacifists who were to support him telling them that the evidence as to his mental condition given at his Medical Board is quite enough to make them look damned silly if they go on with the game and ask questions in the House about his defiance. I’m quite knocked up….262 R. A further letter went to the Hon. Evan Morgan, who was private secretary to a Government Minister. He was also a poet, and had been one of the friends who had been with Robert in the boat which had gone over the weir into the Isis earlier in the year. Robert outlined the story of Sassoon’s revolt, and asked Morgan to use whatever influence he possessed to keep the ‘defiance letter’ hushed up.

Within the next few days, Robert was one of two officers’263 detailed to escort Siegfried up to a convalescent home at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh ; though Robert and the other escort both missed the train, and actually arrived at Craiglockhart four hours later than their ‘prisoner’. Sassoon was placed in the care of Dr W.H.R. Rivers, a psychologist and a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, who was now a temporary captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Sassoon liked him from the first; and although it seemed strange being among ‘160 officers, most of them half-dotty’, Sassoon wrote in a relaxed mood to Robert Ross, telling him that it was ‘very jolly seeing Robert Graves up here’, and adding that on 24 July, Robert’s twenty-second birthday, ‘We had great fun…and ate enormously.’264

When Robert arrived back at Litherland, it was to find that his efforts to hush up Sassoon’s ‘defiance letter’ had failed. A pacifist M.P. read it out in the House of Commons; and although he was personally silenced by a Government Under-Secretary, who pointed out the state of Sassoon’s mental health, the press took up the story, and the letter was published in dozens of newspapers, from The Times to the Bradford Pioneer. But by this time Sassoon was out of harm’s way at Craiglockhart, and Robert wrote to him affectionately and almost a little jealously: ‘Well, you are notorious throughout England now you silly old thing! !”265

Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic (1895-1926)
Book Four: Military Service 1914-1919