From Siegfried Sassoon's diary: The Soul of an Officer (1916). Image Source: Sassoon Estate/Cambridge Digital Library, via European Pressphoto Agency and NYT.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of conflict in World War I. Commemorations are taking place in Mons. To observe this anniversary, the Digital Library at Cambridge University has placed Siegfried Sassoon's war journals online. One of the most famous poets of the war, Sassoon (1886-1967) was an officer who was decorated for bravery on the Western Front; his actions included the single-handed capture of an entire trench from 60 German soldiers.
He kept diaries in the trenches, later famous for their poetry, drawings and reflections. They show his contemplation of the soul of the war. NYT: "My inner life," he wrote, "is far more real than the hideous realism of this land, the war zone." He witnessed the most terrible battle of all, the Somme, where over one million combatants died. He described the Somme as a "sunlit picture of hell."
You can read his journals - over 4,100 pages - here. One poem, Memory, shows the stark line drawn between the pre-1914 world, and the bloody loss and shattering disillusionment that followed.
When I was young my heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
O thrilling sweet, my joy, when life was free
And all the paths led on from hawthorn-time
Across the carolling meadows into June.
But now my heart is heavy-laden. I sit
Burning my dreams away beside the fire:
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost.
O starshine on the fields of long-ago,
Bring me the darkness and the nightingale;
Dim wealds of vanished summer, peace of home,
And silence; and the faces of my friends