Siegfried Sassoon’s First World War diaries – some bearing traces of mud from the Somme – are among 4,100 pages from his personal archive being made freely available online from today, almost 100 years since Britain declared war on Germany.
Cambridge University Library is home to the world’s foremost collection of Sassoon material, and has digitised 23 of Sassoon’s journals and two of his wartime poetry notebooks. From today, they are available to all at the Cambridge Digital Library, where they sit alongside the papers of Isaac Newton and other priceless treasures of the Library’s collections.
Until now, much of the archive has remained beyond the reach of both researchers and the public because of the documents’ poor physical condition. The only person to have had unrestricted access to Sassoon’s journals and notebooks to date was official biographer Max Egremont.
The digitisation of the Sassoon material, which includes draft copies of his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ as well as poetry, prose and sketches, fulfils an objective formulated during the Library’s £1.25m fundraising campaign to purchase the Sassoon Archive in 2009. The campaign, spearheaded by Egremont, was also supported by Sir Andrew Motion, Michael Morpurgo and Sebastian Faulks.
Cambridge University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: “The war diaries Sassoon kept on the Western Front and in Palestine are of the greatest importance, both nationally and internationally, and we are honoured to be able to make them available to everyone, anywhere in the world, on the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
“From his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ to his eyewitness accounts of the first day of battle on the Somme, the Sassoon archive is a collection of towering importance, not just to historians, but to anyone seeking to understand the horror, bravery and futility of the First World War as experienced by those on the front lines and in the trenches.”
The digitisations make available online for the first time 23 of Sassoon’s journals from the years 1915-27 and 1931-32, as well as two poetry notebooks from 1916-18 containing rough drafts and fair copies of some of his best-known war poems. Sassoon wrote in a small and legible hand, frequently using his notebooks from both ends. The images of them are both powerful and evocative, showing mud from the trenches and spilled wax, presumably as he sat writing in his dug-out by candlelight.
The journals give a fascinating insight into daily life in the trenches. Sassoon described the first day of the Somme as a ‘sunlit picture of hell’ and the diaries also record the moment he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Arras, as well as a psychological profile of ‘the soul of an officer’ . The poems include previously unpublished material along with early drafts of some of his best-known works including an early version of ‘The Dug-Out’ with an additional, excised verse.
Sassoon’s journals represent much more than a simple diary record. The notebooks were small enough to be carried in the pocket of his army tunic, and he used them to draft poetry, make pencil or ink sketches, list members of his battalion and their fates, make notes on military briefings, and draw diagrams of the trenches.
“The great array of activities, difficulties and dangers that faced him as a serving officer, and the recurring inspiration of his creative responses to his conditions, are represented in the range of uses to which he put these notebooks,” said Cambridge University Library’s John Wells. “Unlike edited, printed transcriptions, the digitisations allow the viewer to form a thorough sense of the physical documents, and to appreciate their unique nature as historical artefacts.”
The Sassoon collection joins other collections being delivered through the Cambridge Digital Library, which aims to make the Library’s great collections openly available to the world. The Digital Library was launched in 2011 and made possible through a generous donation from the Polonsky Foundation.