Born in 1886 in England, Sassoon was of the best known World War1 poets. In the front, Sassoon became well known for his near suicidal acts of bravery. But repeated exposure to the death of young soldiers and inhuman suffering in the trenches turned his mind away from war. Using bitter sarcasm and excoriating imagery, he provokes the reader into thinking about the purposelessness of war. For his many acts of bravery, he was decorated with the Military Cross.
This poem Attack captures the horror of troops caught in the middle of a brutal and merciless war. In a mechanized war, attacks take place with frightening speed and intensity. There is no place to run and response is often instinctive and not calculated. The end was often death for the attacker and the defender. Using a series of present continuous verbs, the poet depicts fast evolving action. Throwing everything they have, the soldiers plunge in only to be met by a barrage of roaring guns and whistling bullets. The soldiers realize that there is little hope of survival, in a mechanized war. Ridges were of strategic importance in war. The troops which commended a ridge had the advantage of firing at the approaching enemy from all sides. But ridges were captured at great cost to human lives.
All night the troops have been advancing and it is at dawn that the ridge comes in sight. It is no ordinary dawn. The land has a menacing look seen through the sunlight that is purple as it is being viewed through the smoke of booming guns. The frontline is made up of huge tanks that crawl forward awkwardly. Only when they gain the ridge, can they rain down destruction on the enemy which is waiting on the other side. The defenses that have been built lifts up when hit by fire. At this point, the troops move forward. They are hampered by the heavy armaments they carry. They crawl out of their trenches and move towards the line of fire, their faces reflecting their terror and loss of hope. The watches they wore on their wrists ticked away measuring time and disappearing hope. In the last line the poet makes a passionate plea to Jesus to stop the senseless horror of war.
As dawn breaks the ridge looms ahead, a dull grey brown in color. There is smoke from the guns drifting about through which the “glowering” sunlight glows purple, an unlikely color for a rising sun which usually shines warm gold. The slope that leads to the ridge is scarred by gunfire. All the metaphors point to violence and destruction. Land has been laid bare, shorn of vegetation and the sun seems to be angry or glowering. The tanks which are in the frontline move forward to crest the ridge. But they appear to tumble over. The fortifications take the brunt of the fire and lift up as it is hit. The men are hampered by their kit which consists of bombs, guns, shovels and battle gear. As the men reach the crest, they are met by enemy fire. Fear and desperation clear on their faces, they crawl out of their trenches and move forward. As the seconds tick away on their watches, hope dies. The poet makes a fervent plea to Jesus to intervene and stop this senseless destruction of human life in the name of war.
The graphic details bring home the violence and destruction that all war entails. The men who go forward are aware of the lack of hope. With each attack, causalities mount. The soldiers are reduced to just a number on the military bulletin, there is hardly any chance to retrieve the dead or give them a decent burial. Along with the loss of life is the destruction of land. Land that at one time was verdant and green is now “dun”. The poet is disillusioned and bitter.