“Can’t think unless I wear my spectacles!” Researching the Siegfried Sassoon Notebook

War poet Siegfried Sassoon outside his home, Heytesbury House

In August last year a pilot digitisation project was organised for the Department of Documents and Sound and it was agreed that the first selection of objects would be made from the collection of the war poet, Siegfried Sassoon. My task was to assess whether or not some of the books and documents that Tony Richards, Section Head for the Documents and Sound Collections, had identified as being potentially put at risk by the process were, in fact, stable enough to withstand being digitised.

One item from the collection is a notebook that contains some of the poetry Siegfried Sassoon wrote in. We have it in its original form, but it was in such poor condition that it could not be handled safely for research purposes, which is why it had been selected for the digitisation project in the first place. However, it was stable enough for scanning.

The majority of Sassoon’s text was written in pencil and it was as I made an assessment of the notebook I noticed some of the handwriting  had been erased. This made me wonder if we could reveal what had been erased using Infrared Reflectography  which is a process whereby a special infrared camera is used to digitally scan the object. Anything that is absorbed in the infrared region will show up clearly and pencil (graphite) is absorbed in the infrared region, so potentially we would be able to read the erased writing. When I mentioned this everyone got very excited and asked me to take it further, so I did.

We don’t have an infrared camera here at IWM, but I had worked with Rachel Billinge, Research Associate at The National Gallery on a similar project before in an attempt to reveal what was underneath some Nazi censorship on three postcards from our collections. Unfortunately, in that instance it was the handwriting that disappeared completely and the censorship ink that clearly remained – of course! Anyway, she very kindly offered to do the same again for the poetry notebook.

Rachel Bilinge at the National Gallery assisted in the photography of Sassoon’s notebook.

However, this also raised some ethical questions: If they were poems, had he erased them because he didn’t want them to be seen? Did he consider them unworthy or, perhaps, too bloodthirsty for the greater populace to stomach? Had someone else erased them after he had written them? Was it some form of censorship? If he didn’t want them to be seen, should we be making them public against his wishes? But how would we know what his wishes or original intentions were?

We decided that we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. For all we knew, we might not be able to reveal anything at all – and even if we did, as Tony jokingly said, it could just be his shopping list!

Rachel and Tina positioning the camera to photograph Sasson’s notebook.

In order for the photography to take place the book had to be positioned vertically in front of the camera, so I needed to create a special mount with a lip made from conservation board that could be placed on two small easels, with the legs held firmly in place about 20cms apart with lead weights. The book was then supported on the mount with Melinex (transparent polyester) strips at either side to prevent the pages from falling forwards. It also meant that the book had to be conserved and made ready for handling before we could even begin. Once this had all been done I took the book along to The National Gallery to be photographed.

As the Melinex strips would be too reflective and actually show up on the images I had to hold the edge of the page that was being photographed closed with a book clamp over a small, folded piece of card that acted as a barrier instead – detaching and re-attaching them as required.

We used a special Osiris camera to digitally scan the notebook. Inside the camera is a sensor that maps a square at a time (approximately 2.5cms squared), moving from left to right, down a row, back again, then down to the next row where the process is repeated again, and so on until the area to be photographed has been completely covered. The camera was linked to a computer and, using the accompanying specialist software, Rachel initially plotted each corner and then set the camera to work systematically on the rest of each photograph.

A scan of Sassoon’s notebook showing previously unseen notes and comments. Image © The National Gallery

Straight away we could make out odd phrases and letters – including the sentence “Can’t think unless I wear my spectacles!”– so I knew we were onto something. One section, in particular, had lots of crossing out and we were hopeful that it was a poem.

A detail of one of the pages scanned. The phrase “Can’t think unless I wear my spectacles!” is just visible.

The original photos Rachel took were quite faint and she also explained that, because the camera is designed to look through multiple layers of paint, it might actually show through text from the back of the page as well. However, with some careful adjusting the image was set to the correct depth. Further enhancements were later made to Rachel’s photos by Richard Ash, from our Visual Resources team. Even so, the text was still quite hard to read.

Scans of Sassoon’s notebook deciphered by our conservation team. Image © The National Gallery.

Tony Richards, being our resident expert on Sassoon, was given the task of trying to decipher the writing and find out if we did have anything exciting. One quote is, “But I didn’t want RG to say I was mad” (This presumably relates to the period immediately after Sassoon’s public statement of defiance against the First World War, when his friend and fellow Royal Welch Fusiliers officer, the war poet Robert Graves, stepped in and encouraged the authorities to classify Sassoon as suffering from ‘shell shock’ and thereby to be hospitalised, rather than be given a court martial). Particularly telling was, “My war poems were pictures of what I saw or felt”.

According to Tony, the erased text seem to be rough notes written for Sassoon’s own benefit and guidance while writing the chapters which formed the end of  ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ (published in 1930) and the beginning of ‘Sherston’s Progress’ (published in 1936).  Much of the text seems to relate to Robert Graves (referred to as “RG”) with whom, while enjoying a close friendship during the war, Sassoon fell out following the publication of Graves’s memoir ‘Goodbye To All That’ in 1929.

Siegfried Sassoon’s Protest Album, including a copy of his protest letter published in The Time Newspaper.

Obviously, it’s a pity we didn’t have a previously unseen poem, or even an earlier version of a well-known one, but it’s still very interesting to see the man behind the poetry revealed in this way.

A first edition of Sassoon’s poetry and a copy of his letter published in The Times newspaper, 31 July 1917 outlining how he felt the First World War was being unnecessarily prolonged, causing public outrage and discussions in Parliament, will be displayed in the new First World War Galleries opening in summer 2014.

  1. Gemma Henderson says: November 18, 201311:38 am

    Amazing story, using modern technology to shine a light into the past. Fascinating!

  2. Shawdiane Bernard says: March 30, 20142:56 pm

    As I read this, I could not help wonder how Siegfried would feel about looking into information he did not want anyone other than himself to see. Privacy has changed as technology grows. This alone shows the vast difference in his & our way of life. Fascinating – Thank you IWM.

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