By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) wrote ‘Base Details’ in 1917; it appeared in his diary entry for 4 March. It’s one of his best short poems satirising the older generation who sent so many younger men to their deaths in the First World War. You can read Sassoon’s ‘Base Details’ here before reading on to our summary and analysis below.
Base Details: summary
‘Base Details’ sees Sassoon musing upon what it would be like if he was one of the older, bald, breathless majors who live back ‘at the Base’, behind enemy lines and some way from the trenches and the fighting during the First World War.
Sassoon opines that if he were one of those older men in their red majors’ uniforms, sipping wine in a posh hotel while he ordered young soldiers to attack, sending them over the top into No Man’s Land, he’d look down the list of those who’d been killed in action and express (performative) sympathy for the fallen man, saying how he knew the boy’s father.
Then, when the war was finally over because all of the younger generation of men had been killed, he’d totter off home and die in his bed, of old age, having lived a full life, rather than being gunned down by machine-gun fire or blown to pieces by shells and grenades in the fighting.
Base Details: analysis
One of the most ingenious things about the form and structure of ‘Base Details’ is the fact that it’s a form of (abbreviated) sonnet. The English or Shakespearean sonnet has 14 lines rhymed ababcdcdefefgg: three quatrains followed by a concluding rhyming couplet.
By contrast, ‘Base Details’ has 10 lines rhymed ababcdcdee – in other words, it’s essentially an English sonnet with that third quatrain removed, so two quatrains followed by a concluding couplet.
This is significant because Sassoon, like his friend and fellow WWI poet Wilfred Owen, often plays around with established forms in order to highlight how the First World War is destroying old attitudes and traditions in its wake.
Suddenly, a Shakespearean sonnet seems inappropriate for a young soldier putting his life on the line for the previous generation of men back at base camp. The curtailed form of the longer sonnet suggests Sassoon’s curt, light-lipped anger at the waste of human life – all those lives, like the poem itself, being suddenly cut short.
‘Base camp’ points, of course, to the wordplay at work in the title of Sassoon’s poem: ‘base’ can be analysed in terms of the military base (far behind enemy lines) where the ‘scarlet majors’ (scarlet because of their red uniforms; but perhaps also conveying the idea of sin) sit swigging their posh drinks in a comfortable hotel, far out of reach of shrapnel or machine-gun fire. (As Blackadder says when General Melchett tells him that he’s right behind him, ‘About 35 miles behind us.’)
But ‘base’ also points to low or even craven morals – the immorality of pampered majors ordering more junior men to their deaths. And ‘details’, too, is a pun: in military parlance, ‘details’ are men, so Sassoon’s poem refers both to the details of what’s discussed back at the Base, and the ‘base’ or immoral men who are found there.
The subjunctive mood in which Sassoon casts his poem – if I were old and bald like these men in charge – highlights the sardonic and satirical tone of the poem.
The men sitting in comfort in their clubs and hotels, eating and drinking while others do the fighting, haven’t earned such a life: it is merely an accident of birth that they were born too early, or were judged too infirm, to participate in the fighting themselves. The harsh plosive alliteration of ‘puffy petulant face’ reinforces the anger Sassoon feels.
In the last analysis, ‘Base Details’ is a fine example of Siegfried Sassoon’s tightly controlled anger at the way older men were sending the youth to almost certain death in No Man’s Land.
But its form is also worthy of commentary: we’re a world away from Shakespeare’s love poetry or the sonnets of the Elizabethans, and we’ve entered the dark, murky world of industrial warfare and mass carnage.