Memoirs of an Infantry Officer
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is the second volume of Siegfried Sassoon's fictionalized autobiography. The first and third volumes are Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, and Sherston's Progress, respectively. It is no longer customary for authors to entitle each chapter of a book, but it was once quite common, if not compulsory. The ten chapters of Sassoon’s memoir bear these Kiplingesque titles:
I At the Army School
Coupled with his formal structure this gives the initial impression that this is going to be a jolly good bit of stiff-lipped British heroism in the face of enemy fire. But he writes in that other British tradition; that of the skeptic. His treatment of doubt as a theme, in many ways prefigures that of Graham Greene. This volume opens with his alter ego, Sherston, assigned for four weeks to the Fourth Army School. He suggests that this is because his commander is concerned that he has become reckless and may be a danger to himself. When this book was first published in 1930, the average reader may not have recognized Sherston as an unreliable narrator, but upon a second reading, much of what the narrator tells us grows in irony. These lines from 'Convalescence' are typical of the game he plays with the reader:
"Beside the bed there was a bowl of white lilac and a Bible. Opening it at random to try my luck, I put my finger on the following verse from the Psalms: 'The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart.' Rather an odd coincidence, I thought, that the word 'war' should turn up like that; but the Old Testament is full of fighting..."
Of course, the words of Sassoon's mouth are also smoother than butter, and he continually ventures toward the realm of post-modernism when he draws the reader's attention to his technique in this manner.
The arc of his story is scarcely important at all, rather the value here is like the value found in a good diary; the telling moment and the emblematic image. I first picked up Memoirs of an Infantry Officer as a companion to a collection of World War I poetry I had recently purchased. There are variations of lines of his poetry scattered throughout the book, but I was struck by how plainspoken his prose is most of the time. He gains his effects not through an overabundance of fine words but from the restraint of this talent. When he does venture towards the poetic it is only to add scenery to the stage; it is not part of the dialogue he carries on with the reader.
The ability of the human personality to adapt to adverse circumstances is a topic commonly dealt with in war stories, and the mechanisms of that adaptation are a frequent topic of Sassoon's musings. What is unusual, at least to an American reader, is the role of social class in the British military. His dependence upon his position as an aristocrat to dictate where he will spend his convalescence is related with a smugness that doesn't seem to be self-conscious. Similarly, his treatment of the member of the ranks who acts as his servant is patronizing to say the least. There is more than a trace of 'Gunga Din' paternalism in the way he depicts this fellow. We almost expect that he will throw himself on a grenade to protect Sassoon's valise rather than have its finish scuffed.
And yet, Sassoon was not just an aristocrat, he was an actual anti-war protester. His letter condemning the unnecessary prolongation of the war is not one of the fictionalized aspects of the book. It is reprinted verbatim. Likewise the danger of a court martial is also not a fictional aspect of this book. He relates his side of the episode which found the British military unwilling to make a martyr of him. Through the influence of fellow officer Robert Graves he was instead brought before a medical board that found him to be suffering from shell shock. This volume of his memoirs leaves him as he arrives at the military hospital where he is to be interned. It was there that he composed many of the poems for which he is best known.
After having read this book for the second time I decided to pick up Robert Graves, Good-bye to all That, to get a different perspective on many of the same events. After having read Graves’ version, I've decided that there is far more artifice to Memoirs of an Infantry Officer than meets the eye. Every time the narrator, Sherston, expresses reluctance to venture an opinion or relate an anecdote, I can hear Sassoon assenting the affirmative. This does not necessarily make for a dishonestly written book, but rather for a book that operates on several levels at once. A young or inexperienced reader could, conceivably, read this as a straightforward war story, but it is also a subtle, humanistic treatment of the role of doubt in the author's conscience. I'm not sure that it isn't more valuable as a document of a conscience than as a relic of war.
I recommend Memoirs of an Infantry Officer to all of the devotees of the World War One Poets like Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. And also to everyone that thrilled to Snoopy’s quest to down the Red Baron. Sometimes we tend to romanticize World War One, this book stands as a perpetual corrective for the rosy rear view mirror.