Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was, along with Wilfrid Owen, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves, one of the best-known poets of the First World War. He served as an officer with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in 1916. Though he had volunteered for service, he became disillusioned and, while convalescing from a wound in England in 1917, grew determined to make a statement against the war. He spent part of his convalescence at Garsington, the home of Russell’s lover, Ottoline Morrell, and Ottoline suggested he discuss his ideas with Russell.
In his lightly fictionalized Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (first published in 1930), Sassoon wrote of his initial meeting with Russell, whom he calls ‘Tyrrell’: “My first impression was that he looked exactly like a philosopher. He was small, clean-shaven, with longish grey hair brushed neatly above a fine forehead. He had a long upper lip, a powerful ironic mouth, and large earnest eyes…. He put me at ease by lighting a large pipe, saying as he did so, ‘Well, I gather … that you’ve been experiencing a change of heart about the war’.” Sassoon continues: “Tyrrell poured me a second cup of tea and suggested that I should write out a short personal statement based on my conviction that the War was being unnecessarily prolonged by the refusal of the Allies to publish their war aims.” Sassoon then recounts Tyrrell as saying: “‘We should print and circulate as many copies of your statement as possible…. But I hadn’t intended to speak as definitely as this. You must decide by your own feeling and not by what anyone else says’.”
Sassoon then went away and within a week wrote what has become known as “A Soldier’s Declaration.” A draft of the declaration, in Sassoon’s hand, is on display here. Also displayed is a letter from Sassoon in which he tells Russell how he wants the declaration to be revised. These revisions can be seen on the draft, added in Russell’s hand. The brief statement is direct, stark, and powerful. Sassoon begins boldly: “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority.” He continues: “I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it” and “that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” He further believes “the sufferings of the troops … to be evil and unjust” and decries “the callous complacence” of “the majority of those at home.”
After completing the statement, there followed the question of how it was to be distributed. It is important to point out that Sassoon had not suddenly become a pacifist. He was a soldier, and he felt it was his duty to present the statement first to his commanding officer, which he did, much to the officer’s consternation. For his part, Russell approached a sympathetic Member of Parliament who read the statement in the House of Commons, and it was soon published in whole or in part in several newspapers.
The government faced a quandary. What to do with a decorated war hero and well-known poet who had taken such an outspoken stand against the war? It would appear that a court-martial was in order but, fearing the publicity that would ensue, the authorities opted for another approach. They wanted Sassoon to stand before a medical board, but he initially refused. At this point, his friend and fellow officer, Robert Graves, intervened. While the two held similar views about the war, Graves felt that protests like Sassoon’s were pointless. He convinced Sassoon to go before the medical board, telling him—falsely—that he would otherwise be placed in an asylum for the duration of the War. Sassoon relented. The board decided that Sassoon was a victim of shell shock, and he was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland where he was placed under the care of W.H.R. Rivers, a pioneering psychiatrist. Out of loyalty to the soldiers under his command, Sassoon would eventually decide to return to the front, only to be wounded again in a friendly fire mishap; he would spend the last few months of the war convalescing in England.
Meanwhile, Graves was incensed with Russell for his role in the affair. There is a single letter from Graves in the Russell archives in which he tells Russell: “I blame you most strongly for your indiscretion in having allowed him to do what he has done, knowing in what state of health he was …. Now you can leave things until he’s well enough again to think calmly about the War and how to end it.”
In Memoirs, however, Sassoon’s view of Russell (Tyrrell), unlike Graves’, is unfailingly positive. He describes him as “a great man and to be thought of as ‘in a class by himself.’” He continues: “Walking alongside the philosopher I felt as if we were a pair of conspirators. His austere scientific intellect was far beyond my reach, but he helped me by his sense of humour, which he had contrived, rather grimly, to retain, in spite of the exasperating spectacle of European civilization trying to commit suicide.”
In his Autobiography, Russell does not mention the events at all, only making a passing reference to Sassoon in one of his letters to Ottoline that is published there. Since Sassoon had ended up returning to the war—thus, seemingly, abandoning his anti-war stance—it is possible that Russell simply dismissed the whole affair.
Sources: (1) Ronald W. Clark. The Life of Bertrand Russell. Jonathan Cape and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975. (2) Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. Penguin Books, 2013; originally published in 1930. (3) Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: the making of a war poet. Duckworth, 1998. (4) Miranda Seymour, Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992. (5) Letter from Robert Graves to Bertrand Russell, 19 July 1917, Bertrand Russell Archives, Box 5.18, Document 050412.
Dear Mr. Russell,
My appointment by the War Office will probably take another 3 weeks to come through. I want to wait for this, but don’t intend to do so more than a certain time – (say July 15th).
I think young Sorley was right when he wrote (in 1914) “We are not fighting a bully but a bigot,” – don’t you?  People say to me, “Nothing can stop the war till some glimmering of the truth dawns on the Prussian junkers” – They never ask themselves how long it would take “the truth” to dawn on them if someone was going for them with a loaded stick. I suppose ‘the truth’ is the infallibility of the British point of view. Sometimes I feel that any appeal to the human element is hopeless – War seems to reduce all that to futility. Fifteen inch shells are the only things that carry any conviction with them. And the soldiers are gulled into concealing their loathing of the war by the civilians who only half-disguise their own liking for it.
I have re-written the paragraph which seemed wrong – “I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible for them to be changed without our knowledge: and that, had this been done, the objects which activated us would now be attainable by negotiation.”
(In the next sentence, substitute “troops” for “soldiers”.
I shall be here till the 28th now.
This statement is made by Second-Lieutenant
Siegfried Lorraine Sassoon, M.C. 3rd Battallion [sic]
Royal Welch Fusiliers.
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them without our knowledge: and that, had this been done, the objects which activated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them: also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.
 Weirleigh was the Sassoon family home in Kent.
 The year was 1917.
 “young Sorely” was the poet Charles Hamilton Sorley; he served in the British army and was killed in action in October 1915 at the age of 20. The citation is from a published letter that Sorley wrote in 1914.
 The Statement was drafted in June. This date of July 1917 was likely the intended date of issue.