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Terence Davies’ new film Benediction, starring Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi and Kate Phillips, tells the story of Kent’s wartime poet Siegfried Sassoon


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Discover the fascinating story of Siegfried Sassoon, Kent’s rebel poet.

Terence Davies’ new film, Benediction, is released in cinemas this weekend and explores the turbulent life of the renowned First World War poet.

Siegfried Sassoon grew up in Kent and became one of the most well-known poets of the First World War. Picture: Alan Smith
Siegfried Sassoon grew up in Kent and became one of the most well-known poets of the First World War. Picture: Alan Smith

The blockbuster is a captivating depiction of the renowned writer and sportsman as he grapples with both the horrors of life in the trenches and his sexuality, and stars Jack Lowden as a young Siegfried.

Doctor Who and the Thick of It actor Peter Capaldi also appears as Sassoon in his later years.

But to really understand the journey of this defiant poet and soldier, you have to go right back to the beginning - and it all starts here in Kent.

Born in 1886 in idyllic Matfield, a small village tucked away between Paddock Wood and Tunbridge Wells, Sassoon experienced a different upbringing to most of his peers.

Growing up in Weirleigh, a neo-gothic house built by British artist Harrison Weir which still stands today, to an Indian father and Anglo-Catholic mother, Sassoon found himself surrounded by conflict from a young age.

His father, Alfred Sassoon, was the son of a wealthy businessman and a member of the Sassoon merchant family. However, when Alfred met Theresa Thornycroft - of the famous Thornycroft sculptors - and married outside of the faith, he was disinherited from the family fortune.

Despite overcoming obstacles to be together, his parents eventually separated when Sassoon was just four years old and his father passed away from tuberculosis before Sassoon’s 10th birthday.

Siegfried's childhood home, Weirleigh, in the village of Matfield. Picture: Deborah Penn
Siegfried's childhood home, Weirleigh, in the village of Matfield. Picture: Deborah Penn

While Sassoon went on to do well regardless of a tumultuous home life, attending New Beacon School, an all-boys prep school in Sevenoaks, and eventually finding a place at Cambridge Clare College, the separation did have an effect on him.

In his 1929 book, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Sassoon alluded to the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and his faded relationship with them as he described his early life in Kent.

In his books he made no secret of his life of privilege, writing about his leisurely time playing golf in Lamberhurst, horse racing at Ide Hill and playing cricket for Blue Mantles in Tunbridge Wells, sometimes alongside Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle.

However, his life of leisure wouldn’t last forever.

At 27 years old, Siegfried joined the Sussex Yeomanry as Europe found itself on the brink of war and, after spending the spring of 1915 recovering from a bad arm injury, the young writer was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Jack Lowden stars as Siegfried Sassoon in the new film Benediction. Picture: Vertigo Films
Jack Lowden stars as Siegfried Sassoon in the new film Benediction. Picture: Vertigo Films

As many young soldiers would soon discover, this bloody war was more treacherous than anyone could have imagined. The writer often described its gruesome realities from the frontline in his poems.

After the death of his brother, Hamo, on board the ship Kildonan Castle and his time in the trenches with countless injured comrades, Sassoon quickly became a critic of the war.

His defining moment as a passionate rebel was when, on the shores of Formby beach, he defiantly ripped off his Military Cross ribbon, which he had been awarded for his extreme, and sometimes reckless, bravery, and tossed it into the sea.

He risked everything for this symbol of condemnation, facing being thrown in front of a court martial and becoming a public outcast.

Instead, likely due to his bravery during the war, Sassoon was sent to Scotland’s Craiglockhart military hospital where he was treated for shell shock. Despite his reservations, he did return to the war until a final injury ended his military career for good.

Jeremy Irvine, left, appears in Benediction as famed actor and composer Ivor Novello, one of Sassoon's lovers. Picture: Vertigo Films
Jeremy Irvine, left, appears in Benediction as famed actor and composer Ivor Novello, one of Sassoon's lovers. Picture: Vertigo Films

After leaving the army, Sassoon was finally free to explore his literary hobbies to the fullest.

He became editor of the Daily Herald, where he employed the likes of EM Forster and Charlotte Mew, and penned autobiographies the Old Century, the Weald of the Youth and Siegfried’s Journey, which all document his time growing up in Kent.

He was also free to explore in his personal life which, in the eyes of many at the time, was another act of defiance.

Kate Phillips stars as Hester Gatty, Siegfried's wife and mother of his only child, George Sassoon. Picture: Vertigo Films
Kate Phillips stars as Hester Gatty, Siegfried's wife and mother of his only child, George Sassoon. Picture: Vertigo Films

Although Sassoon masked his sexuality with his marriage to Hester Gatty, 20 years his junior, he had a string of notorious affairs with men before and after his wedding vows - and it is believed that his wife was well aware of them.

“She commits herself to Siegfried knowing his sexuality, which is a really amazing commitment to make,” says Peaky Blinders actress Kate Phillips, who plays Hester in Benediction.

“She was a poet, she was in that world, an artist in her own right and just so utterly drawn to (Siegfried) and his soul and ability.”

Sassoon was known to have had relationships with Ivor Novello, writer Beverley Nichols and Stephen Tennant, a socialite, aristocrat and one of London’s Bright Young Things.

A portrait of Siegfried by Glyn Philpot from the Fitzwilliam Museum at University of Cambridge, where the poet once studied. Picture: Gemma Maclagan, Imperial War Museum
A portrait of Siegfried by Glyn Philpot from the Fitzwilliam Museum at University of Cambridge, where the poet once studied. Picture: Gemma Maclagan, Imperial War Museum

Sassoon and Tennant met in 1927 and fell in love, leading to a relationship that would last almost six years.

However, when Tennant was receiving treatment for his recurrent tuberculosis - apparently in a Kent hospital - he wrote to Sassoon ending their relationship, which left the poet devastated.

His heartbreak lasted into his marriage to Hester, to whom he confided about his sorrow.

After the breakdown of their marriage, Sassoon saw out his last years in relative seclusion in Wiltshire, lamenting the glory days of his Kentish youth until his death in 1967, one week before his 81st birthday.

Peter Capaldi portrays the poet in the later part of his life. Picture: Vertigo Films
Peter Capaldi portrays the poet in the later part of his life. Picture: Vertigo Films

Today, his legacy lives on, from his timeless poetry to his Matfield family home and, now, on big screens all over the world.

Benediction is in cinemas from Friday, May 20.

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