Counter Attack

Counter Attack

By Siegfried Sassoon

We’d gained our first objective hours before
While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,
Pallid, unshaven and thirsty, blind with smoke.
Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,
With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,
And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!

A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,
Staring across the morning blear with fog;
He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,
While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.
He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,
Sick for escape,—loathing the strangled horror
And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.

An officer came blundering down the trench:
“Stand-to and man the fire step!” On he went …
Gasping and bawling, “Fire-step … counter-attack!”
Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
“O Christ, they’re coming at us!” Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle … rapid fire …
And started blazing wildly … then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans …
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.

Summary of Counter Attack

  • Popularity of “Counter Attack”: Written by the British poet and World War I veteran Siegfried Sassoon, “Counter-Attack” is a powerful poem that shows the horror and chaos of trench warfare. Published in 1918, during the final year of the war, in Sassoon’s collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems, the poem sets the stage for the depiction of the stark realities of war. Also, the poem’s publication coincided with a growing disillusionment with the war among the British public, who were increasingly questioning the cost and purpose of the conflict as they were losing their sons fast. Consequently, “Counter-Attack” struck a chord with the British readers, and became one of Sassoon’s most popular and enduring works, cementing his reputation as one of the foremost war poets of his generation.
  • “Counter Attack” As a Representative of War Poetry: Counter-Attack by Siegfried Sassoon is a representative work of war poetry that captures the physical and emotional toll of World War I on soldiers and public alike. The poem’s themes of loss, despair, and futility, as well as its vivid depiction of death and destruction, are common elements found in many other war poems of the same period. Specifically, his use of language and poetic techniques serve to intensify the sense of horror and chaos that characterizes the war. Through its powerful imagery and emotional impact, “Counter-Attack” stands as a poignant and enduring representation of the impact of war on soldiers, and a testament to the power of poetry to express the complexities of human experience.
  • Major Themes in “Counter Attack”: The poem explores major themes related to the experience of war. One of the most prominent themes is the sense of loss and despair experienced by soldiers the poem’s depiction of death and destruction on the battlefield shows it. Another theme is the futility of war, with the poem questioning the purpose and meaning of the conflict. Additionally, the poem explores the physical and emotional toll of war on soldiers, including the trauma and fear experienced in combat. Sassoon also touches on the theme of the human cost of war, highlighting the sacrifice and suffering endured by soldiers and their loved ones as they imagine their loved ones “gasping and bawling” in the war. Also, the poem reflects a growing disillusionment with the war among the British public, as soldiers begin to question the legitimacy and morality of the conflict. That is why, “Counter-Attack” offers a powerful and poignant reflection on the human experience of war, and the complex emotions and themes that it encompasses.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in Counter Attack

Siegfried Sassoon utilized many powerful literary devices to enhance the impact of his poetry in his work. This exploration delves into some of the most significant techniques that are explored below.

  1. Alliteration: It is the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words in a sentence. For example, the sound of /w/ in “ware with” (line 20) and /r/ in “And he remembered his rifle … rapid fire” (line 32) are examples of alliteration.
  2. Allusion: It is a reference to a person, place, or event from literature, history, or culture. For example, the mention of “dead” (lines 7, 245) alludes to the soldiers who have already died in battle.
  3. Apostrophe: It is a figure of speech in which the speaker addresses a person, place, or thing that is not present or cannot respond. For example, “O Christ, they’re coming at us!” (line 31) is an apostrophe, as the speaker is addressing Jesus in a moment of desperation.
  4. Assonance: It is the repetition of vowel sounds in words that are close together. For example, “And stumbling figures looming out in front” (line 30) shows the sound of /i/, which is an example of assonance.
  5. Consonance: It is the repetition of consonant sounds in words that are close together. For example, “To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked” (line 35) shows the examples of /g/ and /d/ showing consonant.
  6. Enjambment: The continuation of a sentence or phrase onto the next line without a pause. Lines 1-2 (We’d gain our first…linking eyes) or 7-8 (The place was rotten…along the saps) or 17-18 (And then, of course…never a dud.)
  7. Hyperbole: It is an exaggeration used for emphasis or effect. For example, “Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell” (line 20) is a hyperbole, as the speaker is using an extreme comparison to convey the intensity of the fighting.
  8. Imagery: The use of vivid and descriptive language to create a mental picture or sensory experience for the reader. The poem contains vivid imagery that paints a picture of the chaos and destruction of war, such as “A yawning soldier knelt against the bank” (line 14) and “He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear” (line 22).
  9. Irony: A contrast between what is expected and what actually happens. For example, the line 13 “And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!” The use of the phrase “jolly old rain” is ironic because rain is typically associated with growth and life, but in this context, it is raining on a battlefield where soldiers are fighting and dying.
  10. Metaphor: A comparison between two, unlike things without using “like” or “as.” For example, “The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs / High-booted, sprawled and groveled along the saps” (lines 7-8). In these lines, the dead soldiers are compared to rotting, green-legged creatures, which is a metaphor for the horror and decay of war.
  11. Personification: The attribution of human characteristics to non-human things. For example, the line “While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes” (line 2) shows the dawn is personified as having blinking eyes, which gives it human-like qualities.
  12. Symbolism: It means to use symbols to convey meanings such as Sassoon uses trenches, fear, hell, smoke and terror as symbols showing war and its horrors.

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in Counter Attack

Poetic devices are techniques used by poets to enhance the meaning and beauty of their poems. Some of the poetic devices used in this poem are as follows.

  1. Diction: The choice and use of words in the poem, including their meaning, tone, and style. In “Counter Attack,” the diction is straightforward and mostly uses simple, descriptive language to convey the horrors of war.
  2. Meter: The rhythmic structure of a poem, usually defined by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. “Counter Attack” does not follow a strict meter.
  3. Rhyme Scheme: It is the pattern of rhyming words or sounds in a poem. “Counter Attack” does not follow a strict rhyme scheme.
  4. Poem Type: It means the type of poem. “Counter Attack” is a war poem that describes the chaos and violence of battle.
  5. Stanza Type: It means the part of a poem having certain verses. “Counter Attack” is divided into three stanzas of varying lengths.
  6. Tone: The attitude or emotion conveyed by the speaker of the poem. In “Counter Attack,” the tone is somber and bleak, reflecting the horror and futility of war.

Quotes to be Used

This quote is suitable to emphasize the ironic and unexpected nature of war. Despite the brutal and tragic circumstances of the battle, the rain is described as “jolly old,” highlighting the contrast between the soldiers’ grim reality and the indifferent forces of nature. This quote is also good for an essay or discussion about the use of irony in literature or to explore the theme of the dehumanizing effects of war.

And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!