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WWI Poet's Diaries Now Online

As Britain marks the 100th anniversary of its entry into World War I, the notebooks of one of the country’s most famous war poets are being published for the first time.

Siegfried Sassoon served on the Western Front and he recorded his experiences in small diaries that are filled with sketches and anecdotes that express the horrors of World War I, the so-called Great War.

Sassoon describes life in the trenches, the moment he was shot by a sniper during the Battle of Arras. His depiction of the first day of the horribly bloody Battle of the Somme is a “sunlit picture of hell.”

John Wells, curator of literary manuscripts at the Cambridge University Library, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the contents of the diaries. He curated the library’s 2010 exhibition “Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, Memory and War.”

Guest

  • John Wells, curator of literary manuscripts at the Cambridge University Library. He curated the library’s 2010 exhibition “Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, Memory and War.”

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Copy in Sassoon’s journal of an official Army report of the raid of 25-26 May 1916 in which he won the Military Cross for recovering a wounded corporal under heavy fire. Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
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Copy in Sassoon’s journal of an official Army report of the raid of 25-26 May 1916 in which he won the Military Cross for recovering a wounded corporal under heavy fire. Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
Entry in Sassoon’s journal for 1916 imagining how in 100 years’ time ghostly soldiers and transport lorries would haunt the French countryside, ‘silhouetted against the pale edge of the night sky’. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
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Entry in Sassoon’s journal for 1916 imagining how in 100 years’ time ghostly soldiers and transport lorries would haunt the French countryside, ‘silhouetted against the pale edge of the night sky’. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
Sassoon’s account of the opening day of the Somme Offensive, with a drawing of a startled face. 1 July 1916. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
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Sassoon’s account of the opening day of the Somme Offensive, with a drawing of a startled face. 1 July 1916. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
Sketch of a hospital ward from Sassoon’s journal, with a sinister head looming above the patients. July–August 1916. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
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Sketch of a hospital ward from Sassoon’s journal, with a sinister head looming above the patients. July–August 1916. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
Sketch illustrating Sassoon’s account of his solo attack on a German trench on the morning of 5 July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. Sassoon took the trench single-handedly, throwing four Mills bombs at which 50 or 60 Germans ‘ran away like hell into Mametz Wood’. This is a good example of the advantage of the digitised journal over the published transcripts, which omitted the sketches and diagrams which bring Sassoon’s accounts to life. Written on 6 July 1916.  (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
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Sketch illustrating Sassoon’s account of his solo attack on a German trench on the morning of 5 July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. Sassoon took the trench single-handedly, throwing four Mills bombs at which 50 or 60 Germans ‘ran away like hell into Mametz Wood’. This is a good example of the advantage of the digitised journal over the published transcripts, which omitted the sketches and diagrams which bring Sassoon’s accounts to life. Written on 6 July 1916. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
Draft of Sassoon’s poem ‘They’ from his journal, with corrections. Conservation concerns were among the reasons for digitising Sassoon’s journals; many of the original volumes are fragile and have suffered significant wear and tear, as the damaged binding on this example shows. 31 October 1916. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
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Draft of Sassoon’s poem ‘They’ from his journal, with corrections. Conservation concerns were among the reasons for digitising Sassoon’s journals; many of the original volumes are fragile and have suffered significant wear and tear, as the damaged binding on this example shows. 31 October 1916. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
Draft of Sassoon’s famous ‘Soldier’s Declaration’, his protest statement against the continuation of the War, which he believed was being deliberately prolonged by those who had the power to end it. 15 June 1917. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
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Draft of Sassoon’s famous ‘Soldier’s Declaration’, his protest statement against the continuation of the War, which he believed was being deliberately prolonged by those who had the power to end it. 15 June 1917. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
Draft of Sassoon’s poem ‘The Dug-out’, from a notebook in which he copied out many of his most famous war poems. The omission from the published version of the lines marked ‘cut this out’ resulted in a poem with a much stronger impact. August 1918. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)
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Draft of Sassoon’s poem ‘The Dug-out’, from a notebook in which he copied out many of his most famous war poems. The omission from the published version of the lines marked ‘cut this out’ resulted in a poem with a much stronger impact. August 1918. (Credit: The Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased / Cambridge University Library)