Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sassoon Medal...

A fascinating story from the Times:
The poet Siegfried Sassoon was on convalescent leave from the Western Front when, out walking one day, he was overwhelmed by a “paroxysm of frustration” and hurled his Military Cross into the Mersey. It was a passionate gesture that expressed all the rage and pain welling up inside one of the nation’s greatest war poets after his experiences in the trenches.
Or so it was widely thought, until the long-lost gallantry award turned up in a chest in his son’s attic in the Isle of Mull last summer.
The officer known as “Mad Jack” for his near-suicidal feats of daring had instead thrown the dress ribbon into the river. The medal itself will now be auctioned at Christie’s in London on June 6, where it is expected to fetch up to £25,000, about 200 times the value of an average First World War Military Cross (MC). Sassoon’s Webley revolver, found with it, has been given to the Imperial War Museum.
Mr Venning said that while Sassoon’s own account of the incident in his 1930 Memoirs of an Infantry Officer makes clear that he threw only the MC dress ribbon into the river, “this became conflated with the medal in the popular imagination so that most people who know a bit about Sassoon think he threw the medal in”.
Robert Pulvertaft, 45, whose stepfather George was Sassoon’s only son and who is selling the medal on behalf of the family, said yesterday: “I had no idea it even existed. Like most people, I thought it had been thrown into the Mersey.
“I found it while clearing out the attic of the family property on Mull. Bizarrely, it was in a treasure chest, like a pirates’ chest, covered in cobwebs and long-dead insects. The ID tag was there too, along with the revolver in an old Jiffy bag and some poetry medals.”
Sassoon won the MC for his actions on May 26, 1916, when he spent 90 minutes under fire during a raid on enemy trenches, collecting and bringing back British wounded and the dying.
On another occasion, he was so upset at witnessing a friend shot dead through the forehead in front of him that he single-handedly charged and captured a substantial German trench.
It's fascinating that even Sassoon's family thought the medal itself was thrown away, despite the accuracy of Sassoon's account. A lesson that we should read texts carefully and not allow our imagination to obscure what's written on the page.
Interestingly, after a somewhat dissolute life, Sassoon converted to Catholicism late in life:
Separated from his wife in 1945, Sassoon lived in seclusion at Heytesbury in Wiltshire, although he maintained contact with a circle which included E. M. Forster and J. R. Ackerley. One of his closest friends was the young cricketer, Dennis Silk. Towards the end of his long life, he was converted to Roman Catholicism, and was admitted to the faith at Downside Abbey, close to his home. He also paid regular visits to the nuns at Stanbrook Abbey, and the abbey press printed commemorative editions of some of his poems.
He died 7 days before his 81st birthday, and is buried at St Andrew's Church, Mells, Somerset, close to Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic priest and writer whom he admired.

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