Terence Davies’s 2022 biopic film Benediction tells the story of Siegfried Sassoon, acclaimed as one of the greatest poets of the First World War. Both moving and witty, the film traces Sassoon’s gay relationships and his marriage to Hester Gatty in 1933.
Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (1886-1967) was born in Kent and partly educated at Marlborough College, Wiltshire. Together with his brother Hamo (who was killed at Gallipoli in 1915) he joined the army just before the outbreak of the war. He was nicknamed “Mad Jack” for his manic courage and suicidal bravery on the Western Front and awarded the Military Cross in 1916. Twice wounded, he was recommended for the Victoria Cross.
His poetry describes the horrors of the trenches and the patriotic pretensions of the jingoistic home front who fuelled the war. Sassoon became the focal point for dissent in the armed forces when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the conflict in his “Soldier’s Declaration” in 1917 which resulted in his admission to Craiglockhart near Edinburgh, a military psychiatric war hospital. There he met and formed a loving but unconsummated relationship with fellow poet Wilfred Owen who greatly influenced him. Tragically Owen was killed in 1918 aged 25, a week before the Armistice, having written some of the greatest British war poetry.
In 1918 Sassoon met artist William Park “Gabriel” Atkin (1897-1937) and it is believed he was Sassoon’s first male lover. His passionate and explicit love letters to Atkin were discovered in the 2000s. Their relationship ended due to Atkin’s promiscuity.
Sassoon became literary editor of socialist newspaper The Daily Herald in 1919. In 1921 Sassoon had a brief affair with actor and composer Ivor Novello (1893-1951), best remembered today for the songs Keep The Home Fires Burning and We’ll Gather Lilacs. A biographer of Sassoon later described Novello as “a consumate flirt who gathered lovers as he did lilacs”. The same year Sassoon met Prince Philipp of Hesse, nephew of German Kaiser Wilhelm II. They were lovers for a few years but grew apart because of Hesse’s increasing Nazi sympathies. In 1926 Sassoon had a brief affair with actor Glen Byam Shaw (1904-1986) but they remained lifelong friends. In 1929 Shaw married actress Angela Baddely, best remembered for her role as cook “Mrs Bridges” in the 1970s TV series, Upstairs, Downstairs.
Sassoon’s longest gay relationship, six years, was with aristocrat and socialite Stephen Tennant (1906-1987). The Honourable Stephen Tennant was a second cousin of Lord Alfred Douglas, lover of Oscar Wilde. Outrageously camp, Tennant became one of the most well known of the “Bright Young Things” of the 1920s and was the inspiration for two characters in novels by Evelyn Waugh: Miles Malpractice in Vile Bodies (1930) and Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945). Sassoon met Tennant in 1927 but Tennant abruptly broke off the affair in 1933 while being treated for tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Kent. Tennant informed Sassoon in a letter written by his doctor, saying he never wanted to see Sassoon again. Sassoon was devastated but they later exchanged letters, telephone calls and infrequent visits but never resumed their previous relationship.
Tennant was the son of Sir Edward Tennant, M.P for Salisbury, and was born at the family home Wilsford Manor, Wilsford cum Lake near Salisbury, Wiltshire, where he also died, reputedly spending the last 17 years of his life in bed.
In 1931 Sassoon rented Fitz House, Teffont Magna, Wiltshire. In 1933 he married Hester Gatty (1906-1973) who was 20 years his junior. Sassoon told her about his relationships with men and they went on to have a son George in 1936. Soon after the marriage the couple moved to Heytesbury House near Warminster, Wiltshire, where Sassoon was to live for the rest of his life. George Sassoon inherited the house after his father’s death and lived there until his own death in 1996. In recent years the 18th century house has been converted into several apartments.
Sassoon died aged 81 in 1967 and is buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, Mells, Somerset.
Jonathan Rowe 2022