When I had the privilege to be involved in the transcription of Arthur Hussey’s World War I Diaries during 2014, the name of “Sassoon” encountered on the Western Front immediately raised intrigue.
One of the idiosyncrasies of Arthur’s diary entries are that he refers to people only by their surname and almost never giving a first name or even an initial. Thus much research was required to confirm the correct identities of the many people mentioned. And so it was with Sassoon.
The first well-known person of that name to come to mind was, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, the writer and poet. After all, Siegfried had lived nearby at Matfield; his mother, Theresa Sassoon, was well known at Scotney, being a friend and acquaintance of Mrs Rosamond Hussey; and, he had had an illustrious career during the Great War. However, the very first attempts to confirm the identity of whom Arthur referred to as ‘Sassoon’ revealed that it could not have been Siegfried Sassoon.
The two references to Sassoon in the diary were from early November 1914. Firstly, on 7 November when Arthur went to Merville “in a big Rolls Royce belonging to Sassoon”; and, two days later, when he “. . . went off with Amery in Sassoon’s new car to Hinges”. The Sassoon name never appears again in any of the eleven diaries.
At this time, Siegfried Sassoon was still in England; having enlisted into the Sussex Yeomanry on 31 July 1914, just a few days before War was declared. Whilst undergoing training and being encamped near Canterbury, Kent, around 5 October he was asked to exercise the farrier-major’s horse. He attempted to jump a hedge but did not see the single strand of wire which tripped the horse causing it to somersault, unseat its rider, and roll over on him badly breaking his right arm. The break was slow to heal, later requiring the insertion of a silver plate. This was removed in January 1915 and was followed by a long period of recuperation back home at Matfield. The result was that Siegfried was not finally commissioned into the Army, as a 2nd Lieutenant, until 29 May 1915, and did not arrive onto the Western Front until November 1915 – a whole year after the references in Arthur’s diary.
Although descended from the immensely wealthy Jewish Sassoon family, Siegfried’s father Ezra had married out of the faith. His mother, Theresa Thornycroft, was Catholic and Ezra was immediately disinherited. Although the couple separated some years later, Theresa continued to bring up her three sons at Matfield, albeit in modest style. It is therefore highly unlikely that Siegfried would have been in a position to purchase a Rolls Royce.
So, if it wasn’t Siegfried Sassoon then who was it? I decided to reconstruct his family tree to find a suitable contender.
Little is known of Siegfried’s elder brother Michael, although he does not appear to have had any war service. His younger brother Hamo was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, but does not appear to have served on the Western Front, and died from wounds in Gallipoli on 1 November 1915. So it wasn’t them. However . . . .
. . . . enter Sir Philip Albert Gustave David Sassoon, MP., 3rd Baronet of Kensington Gore.
Philip, just two years younger, was a second cousin to Siegfried. They both shared the same great-grandfather, but not the same grand-mother. David Sassoon (1792-1864) was a member of a rich Jewish trading family, and was the treasurer of Baghdad, when it was part of Iraq, between 1817 and 1829. When the Turkish regime ushered the Jewish community out of Iraq he emigrated to Bombay (now Mumbai) via Persia, and with his sons built a trading and banking empire between Bombay, Hong Kong and Shanghai. They competed in the established triangular trade of Indian yarn and opium to China, Chinese goods to England, and Lancashire cotton goods to the Far East. David Sassoon used his fortune towards considerable philanthropy in many communities, a tradition that was continued through the family.
Philip was descended from David’s first marriage and Siegfried from the second.
Philip’s father, Sir Edward Albert Sassoon, was elected Liberal Unionist Party Member of Parliament for Hythe in March 1899 and had succeeded to the baronetcy of Kensington Gore in 1896. In 1887 he had married Aline de Rothschild, a member of the Paris banking family.
On the death of his father in 1912, Philip was also elected MP for Hythe, and with his considerable inherited fortune set about purchasing the Port Lympne Estate near Hythe, employing the architect Herbert Baker to design an extravagantly opulent new mansion. In 1923 Philip Tilden largely rebuilt another mansion for Sir Philip at Trent Park, Cockfosters, in a more reserved English style. Indeed, Christopher Hussey himself wrote an article in Country Life (17 January 1931 issue, pp. 66-7) most appreciative of the contrast in style.
Sir Philip built a reputation as one of the greatest hosts in Britain, sumptuously entertaining members of British high society with “a dream of another world – the white-coated footmen serving endless courses of rich but delicious food, the Duke of York coming in from golf… Winston Churchill arguing over the teacups with George Bernard Shaw, Lord Balfour dozing in an armchair, Rex Whistler absorbed in his painting… while Philip himself flitted from group to group, an alert, watchful, influential but unobtrusive stage director – all set against a background of mingled luxury, simplicity and informality, brilliantly contrived…” One frequent guest was Lawrence of Arabia.
It was also said he had a fleet of Rolls Royce cars . . . .
Sir Philip became an enthusiastic airman. At Port Lympne, Philip Tilden added a bachelor wing to accommodate young airmen from the local Romney Marsh flying field. He later became Secretary of State for Air, and was Honorary Commanding Officer of 601 (County of London) Squadron – known as ‘The Millionaire’s Squadron’, having six millionaire members. He died on 3 June 1939, aged 50, of complications from influenza.
However, it is his career during the Great War that interests us here.
Sir Philip was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the East Kent Yeomanry, but was soon to serve as private secretary to Field Marshal Haig throughout the war.
Following on from Arthur’s ‘Sassoon’ diary entries early in November 1914, a few weeks later on 1st December he describes being invited to the Headquarters of General Henry Rawlinson, Chateau Demont, Merville, for a visit by King George V at which President Poincarré of France unexpectedly turned up together with General Joffre. His Majesty was accompanied by Haig, and it is known that Sir Philip was also present, his social contacts and skills having proved useful. We cannot be certain that Arthur Hussey actually met Sir Philip Sassoon but it seems most likely that they would at least have brushed shoulders.
The famous meeting was some two years later the subject of a painting by the British artist Herbert Arnould Olivier. The painting “Merville, 1 December 1914, the Meeting of King George V and President Poincaré of France at the British Head Quarters at Merville, France on 1 December 1914”, now in the Government Art Collection.
Arthur mentions later being requested to provide a photo of him by the artist, and it is not too fanciful to suppose that there is a subaltern in the background that is Sir Philip Sassoon.