“The General,” by the English poet Sigfried Sassoon (1886-1967), is one of many of this poet’s works prompted by World War I. Sassoon was a war hero who eventually became an outspoken opponent of the war. He used many of his poems to express his disgust with that wasteful conflict itself and with the men who were running the war effort. “The General” is clearly one such poem.
As the poem opens, a British general is saying “Good-morning” (1) to troops who pass him on the way to the front. This phrase is ironic for various reasons. First, the greeting is so conventional as to be merely formulaic; it is often simply a thing to say, not an expression of genuine emotion. Furthermore, mornings were especially bad times for troops fighting the kind of trench warfare common in World War I. It was often in the mornings that troops were sent “over the top” of the trenches to try to attack enemy positions, which were often not very far away. Frequently these attacks involved mass slaughter: essentially defenseless men ran straight into walls of blistering machine-gunfire. The general, of course, is trying to be as cheerful and encouraging as possible, not wanting to dampen morale, but everyone involved in the battles of World War I knew that mornings were rarely ever truly “good.”
The fact that the speaker (by using the word “we”) includes himself among the soldiers is significant. Obviously he is better educated than they are, but he feels great sympathy for them, partly because common soldiers during this war were almost literally cannon fodder. Whereas the general greets the men with perfunctory exclamations, the speaker of the poem actually walks with them to “the line” (2) and presumably fights alongside them (as Sassoon himself did). The general, of course, will stay behind, formulating battle plans (which were rarely very successful on either side in World War I) and perhaps greeting other, later men on their way to the front.
Line 3 is successful partly because of the order in which events are described. The crucial fact—death—is delayed until the end of the line. The syntax (or sentence structure) would have been much less effective if the speaker had mentioned the deaths before mentioning the smiling. In line 3 as it is currently constructed, the reference to death comes as...
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The poem "The General" is from Siegfried Sassoon's second collection of war poems which was published in the year 1918 and entitled "Counter Attack and Other Poems."
This very short poem bitterly satirizes the incompetence of the general who commanded his soldiers during the first world war. The general must have been a blue blooded aristocrat who would address his soldiers, who were mostly ordinary men, with the right upper class accent. The general being a staff officer would himself not go into the battlefield. He would merely politely and cheerfully address his soldiers "as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack" to meet their cruel and untimely deaths.
In this poem Sassoon directs his anger on those most directly responsible for the soldiers’ fate. The germ of this brief but highly effective satire seems to have come from an incident in Sassoon’s journey to Arras in Northern France when his regiment, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers, had passed their Corps Commander, Lt.-Gen. Maxse. In the poem the unsuspecting soldiers’ praise of their General’s bluff heartiness - 'He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack - is contrasted starkly with the results of his incompetence, just as his speech is contrasted with the soldiers’ cheerful slang. The use of generic names – ‘Harry’ and ‘Jack’ – which both personalizes and depersonalizes them, and the General’s breezily repeated greeting 'good morning, good morning' together with Harry’s ironic comment and the brutal ending, convey the situation far more vividly than a more elaborate and discursive piece. The colloquial ‘did for them both’ - which implies that the general actually murdered them both - which follows unexpectedly on what appears to be the concluding rhyming couplet, is all the more shocking for its euphemism.