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A 'sunlit picture of hell': War poet Siegfried Sassoon's WWI diaries published online

The Cambridge University Library digitised archive shows how Sassoon documented his experiences of the First World War in sketches and poetry.

Soul of an Officer One of Sassoon's entries, depicting an officer's inner fears and confusion.

JOURNALS KEPT BY British WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon have been published online for the first time by Cambridge University.

The collection includes 23 journals written by the poet between 1915-27 and 1931-32 as well as two notebooks from 1916-18 carried drafts of his war poems. The poems include previously unpublished material from Sassoon, such as a version of The Dug-Out with an additional verse he later left out.

Material included in the collection are Sassoon’s entries for when he was shot by a sniper and his recollections of the first day of the Somme, which he described as a “sunlit picture of hell”. Of the barrage of shells and machine guns, he writes: “The air vibrates with the incessant din – the whole earth shakes + rocks + throbs – It is one continuous roar”.

The journals were small enough for Sassoon (1886-1967) to carry in his army tunic, according to the university.

Some of the digitised notebooks bearing the thoughts, sketches and rough drafts by Sassoon carry physical evidence of being written in the trenches, such as candle wax or mud along the edges.

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Cambridge University Library said that, until now, the journal contents were mostly unseen by researcher and the public because of their poor physical condition, and only Sassoon’s official biographer had unrestricted access to the archive.

World War One - Royal Welch Fusiliers - Belgium August 1914: Members of the British Expeditionary Force photographed en route to Mons. Sassoon would later enter their ranks. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Cambridge University librarian Anne Jarvis described the collection as being of “towering importance, not just to historians, but to any one 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 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.

Extract: Imperial ideas and imperial dreams – the cost of vanity during the Great War >

This gif shows the spead of WWI into a global conflict >

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