Cambridge bids to acquire wartime Sassoon archive

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In July 1917, a young officer covered two pages with minute handwriting in a small, black leather-bound notebook. It could have cost him his life.

The original of Siegfried Sassoon's Soldier's Declaration – a roar of defiance from the Western Front, which caused uproar when it was read aloud in parliament – is part of an extraordinary archive of one the most famous and best loved of the first world war soldier poets. Yesterday, Cambridge University launched a £1.25m appeal in order to be able to acquire the archive from his descendants.

Sassoon's Declaration, which he called "an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it", claimed the government's objectives had secretly changed from defence to conquest, and that peace could have been achieved by negotiation. In the summer of 1917 Sassoon escaped court martial for his outbrust, in part because he had just won an MC for an act of reckless courage, when he spent six hours dragging wounded soldiers back from No Man's Land in broad daylight.

The archive includes journals, letters, drafts of poems, sketches and photographs, including notebooks stained with the mud of the trenches and candlewax from the feeble light in the dugouts. It was carefully preserved until his death by his only child, George, a distinguished scientist. He had sold some papers in the 1970s to help maintain the ramshackle house he inherited, but destroyed nothing, despite the revelations of the pain of his parents' broken marriage, and his father's many affairs with men. Folded into the cover of one of the notebooks is the "return immediately" telegram Sassoon received from the authorities when he failed to return from leave on the grounds that "I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings". On that occasion, he only survived the firing squad because Robert Graves persuaded him to plead shell shock and face Craiglockhart hospital – where he befriended fellow war poet Wilfred Owen.

Many of the poems in the archive are heavily revised, with whole verses scored out and titles repeatedly reworked. One page, originally written in pencil, is over-written in purple pencil and ink, and then, decades later, in ballpoint. The journals also include poems Sassoon copied out to take to war with him, including works by Robert Graves, and by men whose fame he would eclipse such as Ernest Dowson...

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