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Monday, February 2, 1998 Published at 21:33 GMT


War records of Sassoon, Lawrence released
image: [ Service records from the First World War are a record of the heroism and horror of life in the trenches ]
Service records from the First World War are a record of the heroism and horror of life in the trenches

Papers on the war poet Siegfried Sassoon and desert hero TE Lawrence were released on Monday alongside thousands of service records of soldiers who fought in World War I.

The files include detailed information on enlistment, promotions, active service and injuries. They have remained confidential for almost 80 years.

But 18 months ago, the process of releasing information began, when around 750,000 files were made public.

Now, details of a further 200,000 soldiers are also to be made available.

Poetic justice

[ image: The army questioned Siegfried Sassoon's mental state]
The army questioned Siegfried Sassoon's mental state
When Sassoon appealed for an end to the suffering of the troops on the Western Front, the army questioned his mental state and attempted to show that he had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Though they committed him to a mental home, he later returned to the fighting.

The first verse of the Sassoon poem that indicated his mind was "still in chaos" (0:18")
However the then deputy director of military intelligence, Brigadier-General George Cockerill, after reading his poem "I Stood with the Dead", said it showed he was still unfit to command.

The contents of Sassoon's folder include a copy of his anti-war manifesto, which was passed to the War Office after being left accidentally on a train.

[ image: A senior commander's reaction to Sassoon]
A senior commander's reaction to Sassoon
In it he referred to England's war aims as "evil and unjust" and wrote: "I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it."

A later memo referring to the manifesto said: "Siegfried Sassoon was undoubtedly the author, but when it was written, he was a lunatic."

Lawrence of Arabia lied about his past

Lawrence of Arabia's war records have revealed that his claim to have run away from home to serve in the artillery was false.

Captain B H Liddell Hart said Captain Lawrence told him he joined up in around 1906 or 1907, but a search of the records show no trace of this early service.

He was considered for a Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military honour, but his files reveal that General Francis Wingate, the High Commissioner in Cairo in 1917, effectively kept it from him.

"This officer is down for a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) in the Honours List", he wrote.

"He is now recommended for a Victoria Cross. Do you consider that he is deserving of the latter honour? I do not think so myself."

His fame posed a problem for the Air Ministry when he moved to the RAF from the Army in 1929.

Normally an officer relinquishes his rank when he changes from one service to another.

However, civil servants feared a storm if Lawrence were deprived of his rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

They wrote: "The Air Council consider that the withdrawal of his commissioned rank at this date would only make for greater publicity and press comment and they trust that the Army Council will agree to take no further action in the matter."

Ordinary soldiers' lives will be illuminated

The historian Dr Anita Prazmowska says the files will allow historians to discover the truth of how the war affected so many thousands of men.

"We'll look at the human angle. We will look for evidence for the mistreatment of people who succumbed to shellshock," she said.

"But we will also look at the way in which they were treated when there were accusations of desertion. So obviously it is exciting that we will be able to [finally] make our own judgements."

[ image: The documents could help thousands trace the fate of their relatives]
The documents could help thousands trace the fate of their relatives
Although 60% of wartime records were destroyed or damaged by fire, thousands of families hoping to trace information on their relatives are expected to visit.

The papers will be kept in the Public Record Office in Kew, west London.

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Public Record Office

Siegfried Sassoon: a biography

Siegfried Sassoon: Poems 1918-20

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