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Cambridge University is on the verge of securing Siegfried Sassoon's personal papers for posterity – his unpublished poems and letters are more relevant than ever, says Michael Morpurgo
I once came across a letter written by a military officer to a soldier's mother. "We regret to inform you," it said, "that your son was shot at dawn for cowardice." I later discovered that more than 300 British soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion during the first world war. Two were shot because they had fallen asleep on the job.
As far as I know, Siegfried Sassoon didn't write about these soldiers. But what he did do, as I did when I went to the graves at Ypres, was get angry about the futility of the war. In July 1917, Sassoon – poet, diarist, satirist, officer with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and winner of the Military Cross – was away from the front due to injury. He wrote a letter to his commanding officer, declining to return to duty because he believed the war was being deliberately prolonged by those who had the power to end it. "I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation," wrote Sassoon, who was nicknamed Mad Jack by his men, "has now become a war of aggression and conquest."
Sassoon's letter, titled A Soldier's Declaration, was published in newspapers and read out in the Commons; it very nearly got him executed. Now, a handwritten copy of the letter is among the wonderful collection of Sassoon's personal papers – among them the diaries and notebooks he carried with him to the front – that Cambridge University has all but secured for its library. The National Heritage Memorial Fund has today announced a grant of £550,000 towards their acquisition, which leaves just £110,000 to be raised.
This collection is vital to our understanding of war both then and now. The poets of the first world war – Sassoon, and others like Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas – evoke the pain and suffering of war in a way that I, when I discovered them aged 14 or 15, found riveting. I was a war baby. Born in 1943, I grew up with the suffering of the second world war all around me. I played in bomb sites, and my mother cried often, mourning the death of the uncle I never knew – Uncle Peter, who was in the RAF and was shot down in 1940, aged 21, and whose photograph was always on the mantelpiece. But it was only when I read Sassoon, and the others, that I realised how extraordinarily brave these soldiers, and these poets, were. They faced down the most difficult thing for any of us to face down: our own mortality.
The thing that sets Sassoon's work apart is that he was so connected to his soldiers. One of the previously unpublished poems in this collection provides an account of that connection, and of the wrongs Sassoon felt were being dished out to his men:
Can I forget the voice of one who cried
For me to save him, save him, as
I will remember you, and from
Shall rise the power and the
poignance of my songs
And this shall comfort me until
That I have been your captain and
It's just a scrap torn from a notebook, but it's hugely powerful. Sassoon is more political, more edgy, than the other war poets. But he wasn't always violently against the war. The poem he wrote on the first page of his earliest wartime notebook is also included in this collection. Called Simpleton, it's about his faith that "God marches with the armies". "He loves to hear men laugh," Sassoon wrote, "and when they fall he triumphs in their wounds."
At that time, Sassoon was in tune with the spirit of the war. It was only when he saw the suffering and the pointlessness of it all that he changed his mind. He had a great sardonic wit, too. There's a wonderful short poem Sassoon wrote called The General – about jolly chaps going off to the front, and the general on his horse sending them to their death. Sassoon knew that the soldiers' deaths were coming at the behest of people who didn't understand the military situation: they simply hurled men at barbed wire and machine guns.
Sassoon had the courage to say what, at the time, you absolutely couldn't say, and to some extent, still can't: that there was no point in just going on fighting and fighting. If you read out Sassoon's A Soldier's Declaration in Commons now, it would create the same furore it did in 1917 – because we're exactly where we were then. We're not in a world war, though some might call it a world crisis. But we are still sending young men and women to die in wars that many people in this country don't agree with: wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for supposedly democratic principles – and yet we have a president of Afghanistan who has arrived in the most undemocratic manner. And we have soldiers coming back in coffins.
We're all so adept at turning people into heroes. Sassoon admired the courage of the soldiers, just as many in this country do now; it was the causes he was dubious about. And still, in our wars, with every day, every week, every month that goes by, someone dies. And every time someone dies there's a mother left, a father, a lover, a wife, a child. Sassoon was asking us why men were still dying. His is a voice that really needs to be heard now.