Sir Philip Sassoon (1888–1939)
Philip Sassoon, MP for Hythe and a second lieutenant in the East Kent Yeomanry, spent most of the war working as a secretary and general fixer for Field Marshal Haig, who was Commander in Chief of the British forces in France and Flanders. Today, we might recognise his role as a special adviser. One of his main roles was to liaise with powerful newspaper proprietors, particularly Lord Northcliffe who was critical of the conduct of the war and used The Times and Daily Mail to set out his opinions.
Appointed aged just 27 in December 1915, Sassoon spent much of the war in Haig's headquarters in Montreuil, Pas-de-Calais, as he was a fluent French speaker. He liaised with French military command, organised Haig's diary and corresponded extensively with newspaper proprietors.
Philip's second cousin, Siegfried Sassoon, has become known as one of the defining voices of the conflict with his searing poetry of the waste of human life involved in trench warfare. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s Philip was much more prominent than Siegfried in public life. It was not until later in the 20th century that Field Marshal Haig came under criticism for the huge casualty rate.
Philip did not meet his cousin until after the end of the war and seems to have had little sympathy with Siegfried's decision to protest publicly against the carnage in July 1917. As a staff officer, Philip would have been unlikely to have appreciated Siegfried's poem, The General, written in April 1917. Philip Sassoon was talented in combining deep knowledge and appreciation of art with impressive political skills.
From a prominent and rich Jewish family, he lost a number of friends from his immediate social circle who were more directly engaged in the fighting, including Prime Minister Asquith's son Raymond. His friends William Orpen and John Singer Sargent became war artists, and Sargent's work illustrating the political and military leaders during the First World War hangs today in the National Portrait Gallery.
Sassoon was involved in negotiating the terms of a pension and an earldom for Field Marshal Haig from the Prime Minister Lloyd George in August 1919. The role of the private secretary was to undertake discreet discussions to prevent the need for Haig to submit direct correspondence. Lloyd George was so impressed with Sassoon that he went on to offer him a position as his own parliamentary private secretary in 1920. Haig went on to unite all the ex-servicemen's charities into the British Legion in the 1920s, ensuring that both officers and other ranks were represented in the same organisation. This action symbolised the lessening class divide characteristic of post-war society. After his death in 1928 Haig was given a state funeral and an estimated one million people watched his coffin process from Westminster Abbey through the streets of London.
Philip was first elected as a Conservative MP for Hythe in 1912 and was initially the youngest MP in the Commons. His father had been one of nine Jewish MPs in the House when elected in 1899, also for Hythe. After the war, Philip held ministerial posts until his untimely death in 1939. He had a reputation for being one of the greatest hosts in Britain. He entertained members of the Royal Family, including the future Edward VIII, at his lavishly decorated properties, one of which was Trent Park in Enfield, north of London.
As Commissioner of Works, Sassoon was responsible in 1937 for the erection of a statue of Haig in Whitehall, close to the Cenotaph. An enthusiastic aviator, he built an airfield next to his Trent Park house and when he died in 1939, aged 50, of complications from flu, his ashes were scattered by plane over the airfield.