Manuscript shows World War I poet toned down piece about British soldiers killing German prisoners
A draft of one of Siegfried Sassoon's most famous anti-war poems has come to light, revealing that the most controversial lines were cut and others were toned down before publication.
The manuscript of Atrocities – which is about the brutal killing of German prisoners by British soldiers – is accompanied by an unpublished letter in which Sassoon describes the horror of discovering that soldiers from his own side had committed such barbarities.
The original version of the poem includes the phrases "you're great at murder" and "gulp their blood in ghoulish dreams", which were later deleted.
After his first stanza's description of "butchered" prisoners, the printed second stanza reads: "How did you do them in? …" But in the draft, Sassoon wrote: "How did you kill them? …"
Sassoon's publisher was nervous about including Atrocities in the 1918 volume of war poems, Counter-Attack, and it was published the following year in a revised version.
In the letter accompanying the draft poem, Sassoon voices despair at "Canadians & Australians airing their exploits in the murder line", adding: "I know of very atrocious cases. Only the other day an officer of a Scotch regiment … was regaling me with stories of how his chaps put bombs in prisoners' pockets & then shoved them into shell-holes full of water. But of course these things aren't atrocities when we do them. Nevertheless, they are an indictment of war – some people can't help being like that when they are out there."
The discoveries are among more than 520 poetry manuscripts and portraits of poets collected over 40 years by a literary scholar, Roy Davids, and being sold through Bonhams in what is being described as the finest poetry collection ever auctioned.
Among the Sassoon material is a notebook with almost 50 previously unpublished poems.
Dating primarily from the 1920s, they include Companions ("Silence and Solitude are my companions;/ But I am self-instructed in aloneness…"), The Fear of Death ("Run like the wind to meet him with your mind –/ And you will find yourself no more dismayed/ By death whom life outbraves with every breath…") and Max Gate, mourning the death of Thomas Hardy, his friend.
Sassoon, who died in 1967, received the Military Cross but the horrors he experienced drove him to throw his medal into the Mersey and refuse further duties. He avoided a court martial with a diagnosis of shell-shock and was sent for psychiatric treatment to Craiglockhart Wwar hospital in Edinburgh, from where he sent the unpublished letter in 1917 to CK Ogden, a psychologist friend and editor of the Cambridge Magazine, which published dissenting opinions on the war.
Sassoon's biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson said: "This is very exciting material. I want to rewrite my biography and I probably shall be able to get some of it in. It's a treasure trove."
Commenting on the Atrocities draft, she said: "The publisher, Heinemann, wouldn't let him publish it. I now understand even more clearly [why]. Ogden was one of the few editors who dared to publish anti-war poems. The offices of his magazine were smashed by people who felt that he wasn't patriotic. Also there was censorship of a kind. The editor probably realised this wouldn't have been acceptable. Heinemann would have realised he had to be careful."
Sassoon's notebook is "evidence of his terrible search for a subject", she said. "In the first world war, he'd had a marvellous subject. Once the war was over, he was a poet in search of a subject."
She described the poem on Hardy's death as "very moving" and added: "Sassoon went to help Florence Hardy, the wife, when Hardy died because he was terribly close to Hardy. I thought he must have written something on his death – and here it is."
Davids, 70, is a former auctioneer and dealer who headed the manuscripts department of Sotheby's for many years. Commenting on the Atrocities draft, he said: "I couldn't believe this poem when I first got it, that here was an English officer saying these things about his own side. No wonder they didn't want to publish it. Of course, it was part of that whole business of standing up against the generals. They knew they couldn't execute him, so they sent him off to a madhouse."
Davids's collection reads like an A to Z of English literature, including Tennyson, Ted Hughes and TS Eliot. Such is its size that the Bonhams sale will take place across two days, 10 April and 8 May.
Desmond Clarke, chairman of the Poetry Book Society, said there would be much excitement about the material in the sale, adding: "Atrocities is a terrible indictment of his fellow soldiers and should be required reading for every Sandhurst cadet."