Attack by Siegfried Sassoon
- One of the most famous of all the war poets. He joined the army initially with enthusiasm as an infantry officer, fighting on the Western Front. The bravery he displayed in the trenches earned him the nickname “Mad Jack” and the Military Cross in 1916.
- Grew disillusioned with the tactics employed in pursuit of the war, in particular trench warfare in which the combatants fought for disputed territory from a complex system of trenches which were dug into the landscape.
- These tactics led to massive loss of life. For example in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, 60,000 men were killed or wounded in the first day. One million soldiers died in the four months of the battle for the gain of a few miles of ground.
- It was a terrifying theatre of war in which both sides bombarded each other relentlessly with artillery before infantry regiments went “over the top” to try to claim the opposing trench
- In one of his diary entries Sassoon made reference to the “vile landscape” and “hideous noises” which made “everything unnatural” – a feature of trench warfare he attempts to capture in this poem, together with the terror and heroism of the soldiers.
- The poem blends a sense of horror with sympathy for the soldiers. The caesural pause in the final line emphasises the desperate cry of despair that brings the poem to a dramatic conclusion
Words and Phrases
- The poem opens with a rhymed couplet to describe dawn as it breaks over of the battlefield. Daybreak is conventionally a dazzling picturesque scene but Sassoon’s description strips it of any romantic glamour and gives the battlefield a more threatening, unnatural aura
– The use of colour to describe the sun – “wild purple” – creates a dark , sinister intensity
– The personification of the sun as “glow’ring” transforms the conventional image of sunrise to make the scene seem more menacing
– Using personification and sibilance to describe the ridge as a “scarred slope” captures the savage destruction of the landscape
- Use of imagery: Sassoon stresses the dereliction and destruction of the scene by focusing on the smoke – he uses sibilance in lines 3&4 to perhaps create the hissing sounds of its burning embers and emphasise the harshness of the scene
- He uses the verb “shroud” metaphorically because of its association with death – bodies are wrapped in a shroud as part of burial ritual – thereby creating a more macabre and gloomy scene
- Onomatopoeia is used to capture the deafening sound of the artillery fire as they bombard the enemy trench in preparation for the men going over the top – “the barrage roars”
- The visual image of the men as “clumsily bowed” and the repetition of “and” stresses the weight of their kit
- Pity and horror is created when he uses a euphemism to describe that they “climb to meet the bristling fire” implying their heroic sacrifice and the terrifying ordeal
- The image of time ticking “blank and busy on their wrists” helps capture their panic and the meaninglessness of their lives at this time
- Hope is personified in the last two lines to link the death of hope with the death of the soldiers. The particular choice of adjectives “furtive eyes” and “grappling fists” captures the frantic panic of the soldiers as they face certain death
- The verb “flounders” in the last line confirms the futility of their attack and reflects the poet’s bleak despair at the slaughter of so many men
- The first six lines describe the “vile landscape”; the next six lines describe the soldiers as they go over the top
- Using only one verse gives the descriptions greater intensity
- It is written in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy as we, the reader, relive the experience with the poet as it happens