Sherston's Progress - Siegfried Sassoon This third volume of Sassoon’s semi-auto-biographical yet ostensibly fictional memoirs of the Great War opens with George Sherston committed to a military mental hospital for ‘shell-shock’ due to his recently published statement against the war. Here he meets Dr. Rivers, the psychologist who is to have a lasting impact on his life, and ultimately spends much of his time golfing, reading, reliving his peace-time life by taking part in some local hunts, and talking about his “mental state” with the good doctor. Interestingly the result of Sherston’s treatment is to cause him to, if not repudiate his earlier statement against the war, at least to revise it and instil in him a deep desire to return to the front, for he “would rather be killed than survive as one who had ‘wangled’ his way through by saying that the War ought to stop.” I’m not sure how I feel about this since it was Sherston’s (and by extension Sassoon’s) rejection of the insanity of the war on behalf of other soldiers that made him such a unique ‘war hero’ and now his apparent about-turn leaves me a bit ambivalent.

Aside from the obvious opportunities for leisure that Sherston takes advantage of as part of his recuperation, his time at the hospital also gives him a chance to see other walking wounded whose mental scars are much deeper than his own. He comes to see the real cost and horror of war and he is not oblivious to the high price involved despite his renewed enthusiasm to return to the fighting. Sherston realizes that it may often be worse to be a survivor than a casualty of the guns & bombs as he witnesses men
many of whom had looked at their companions and laughed while inferno did its best to destroy them. Not then was their evil hour, but now; now, in the sweating suffocation of nightmare, in paralysis of limbs, in the stammering of dislocated speech. Worst of all, in the disintegration of those qualities through which they had been so gallant and selfless and uncomplaining—this, in the finer types of men, was the unspeakable tragedy of shell-shock
Sherston’s own version of shell-shock seems to be most intimately related to a deep nostalgia for, and desire to return to, the Front Line from which at the time he had so greatly wished to escape. He does admit, however, that his rebellious side has not been fully ‘cured’ and he is aware (at least in retrospect) of his own ambivalent attitude to the war itself:
That was how active service used to hoodwink us. Wonderful moments in the War, we called them, and told people at home that after all we wouldn't have missed it for worlds. But it was only one's youngness, really, and the fact of being in a foreign country with a fresh mind. Not because of the War, but in spite of it, we felt such zest and fulfilment, and remembered it later on with nostalgic regret, forgetting the miseries and grumblings, and how we longed for it to come to an end. Nevertheless, there I was, a living antithesis to the gloomier entries in my diary, and a physical retraction of my last year's protest against the "political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men were being sacrificed".
Thus Sherston continues to be aware of the continual failings of the war machine at the same time that he voluntarily returns to it.

After being discharged from the hospital Sherston returns to the war, though his first posting (much to his dismay) is to Palestine, not the Western Front. Here he becomes enamoured of the beauty of nature and begins to throw himself into his work as an officer with the aim of making the lives of his men easier, taking on a decidedly paternal role. Ultimately this limbo-like war experience cannot last, and his Brigade is sent to France where fresh troops are needed to fight against recent German advances. Once back in familiar territory Sherston seems almost nostalgic to be back “home” on the front line he so vividly remembered, though he does tend to sublimate both his fear of death and his feelings of inadequacy as an officer by rash acts of valour (his self-avowed moments of “knight-errantry”) when he heads out alone into No-Man’s Land. He freely admits to himself that these are prompted more by fear and ennui than by any sense of bravery. Aside from the ability to lose himself in the ‘excitement’ of action Sherston’s other greatest comfort is his ability, and opportunity, to find refuge in books. He looks at the mostly uneducated soldiers under his command with pity, for they have nothing to turn to except for the small cafes set-up by the military where they spend nearly all of their pay in order to drink away their worries. The War is not only wiping out a generation, but leaving survivors who are the victims of shell-shock and alcoholism.

As with all of the other volumes in this series of memoirs, _Sherston’s Progess_ ends rather abruptly, though it does come full circle to the beginning of the volume: hit by friendly fire Sherston is sent back home for the last time, there to once again meet up with Dr. Rivers. The war is still on-going, though we are told it will end in a matter of months, and Sherston is left contemplating both what he will do with his life from this point forward and reminiscing on what the war has made him into. All in all this series of books was an intriguing look into the life of a soldier during the first ‘Great War’ that shaped the 20th century and into the mind of a sensitive and artistic individual forced into a world of horrors and death in the name of the “greater good”.