Wilfred Owen became one of the most famous war poets of World War One. Like so many others in the British Army, Wilfred Owen was killed in battle but his poetry remains an enduring legacy of his thoughts and emotions about the war – raging against armchairs generals but in praise of those who actually fought at the front.
Wilfred Owen was born on March 18th 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire. He was the eldest of four children; he had two brothers, Harold and Colin, and a sister, Mary.
In 1897 the family moved to Merseyside. By 1906 the family had moved back to Shropshire when work commitments caused his father to move to Shrewsbury where he worked as an Assistant Superintendent on the railways. Owen went to a local school where he quickly demonstrated an interest in the arts, especially the poetry of Keats. He probably started writing poetry at the age of 17. He failed to gain a resident place at the Universities of London and Reading. To raise money for a correspondence course at London University, Owen worked for a year as a lay assistant to a vicar, the Reverend Herbert Wiggin, who had a parish near Reading. What Owen found most marked about his time doing this work, was the stark contrast in lifestyle between Wiggin’s and many of his parishioners. The reverend lived alone in a large vicarage while very many in the parish were poor and lived in one room hovels. It was probably at this time that Owen developed sympathy for the poor and those who had little or nothing – the underdog. This sympathy was to be shown again during his time in the army for those at the front – the pbi – poor, bloody infantry.
He moved to Bordeaux to teach at the Berlitz School of English. Here Owen fell under the influence of the French poet Laurent Tailhade. Owen started to experiment with unusual styles of writing poetry and came up with his ‘vowel-rhyme stunt’. He was also literally miles away from his domineering mother and his letters clearly state that for the first time, he openly enjoyed himself and took to drinking wine and smoking.
At the start of the war, Owen visited wounded French soldiers at a hospital at Baignères. He not only wrote about what he saw but also drew in great and graphic details the wounds he saw. In later years, his critics used this to claim that Owen had voyeuristic tendencies and that this crept into his most famous verses in the form of him exaggerating the whole pity that surrounded war in the trenches.
In September 1915, Owen returned to England and signed up in the Artists’ Rifles on October 20th. By now he had convinced himself that only by fighting the ‘Bosh’ was he going to do his bit “to save the language of Keats and Shakespeare”. Owen had developed a fear that a German victory in the war would destroy the English language. He managed to join up despite being 5 feet 5 inches tall – in 1914 he would have failed the height required for military service.
Owen trained in London where he lodged over the ‘Poetry Bookshop’. Here he befriended its owner, Harold Munro, who encouraged Owen to develop his poetry.
In June 1916 he received his commission in the 5th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment and spent the rest of the year in training. Owen arrived in Étaples, France on December 30th – “in perfect spirits”. He found the men he was to lead rough, uncultured and uncouth. However, Owen found that he gained the respect of his men because he proved to be a very good shot with most infantry weapons. It was a curious combination – a man who desired to be a poet who was deadly with a rifle, machine gun and pistol.
Owen’s first taste of battle was in January 1917 when he and his men had to hold out for 50 hours in a flooded dug-out in No-Man’s-Land in while being heavily bombarded by German artillery – a position now identified as being near Serre Number 2 Cemetery. Owen simply referred to the area as a “sad land”. His time in this dugout undoubtedly changed Owen. He had seen his training at Étaples as a ‘laugh’ and his letters home hint at the jollity in his life while training. However, he was now “in front of the front line” with orders not to pull back under any circumstances. A German shell landed near the dugout and shrapnel hit one of his men who was on sentry duty. His poem “The Sentry” is an account of his time in the dugout.
In March Owen received minor injuries after falling into a cellar in the dark but was back on the front line in April. In May he was hit by a shell explosion at Savy Bank and spent several days in a railway embankment. The same explosion killed his best friend ‘Cock Robin’ and this had a devastating impact on him. When Owen was rescued his colleagues noticed that he was behaving in a strange manner and he was diagnosed with shell shock.
In the early years of the war, senior officers did not recognise shell shock and some men were executed for cowardice as a result. However, as the war moved on shell shock became a recognised disorder. Owen was later evacuated from the war front. In June, Owen convalesced in Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh under the supervision of Dr. A J Brock.
While some hospitals used electric shock therapy to treat shell shock, Brock did not. He believed in occupational therapy. Men under him did gardening, looked after animals etc. Brock encouraged Owen to write. He became editor of the hospital’s own magazine, “The Hydra”. Brock wanted Owen to rediscover his creativity. When Brock found out that Owen wrote poetry, he encouraged him to continue with this while in hospital.
It was while Owen was in hospital that he met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon read his poetry and encouraged him to continue with it. While convalescing, Owen wrote much of the poetry for which he is famous, including ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. As a result of his friendship with Sassoon, he met and communicated with men such as Robert Graves, H G Wells and Arnold Bennett. While he seemingly got on well with these men, he did not befriend the female poet Jessie Pope, whose jingoistic poetry extolling the virtues of gloriously dying for your country was anathema to Owen.
His relationship with Sassoon fundamentally changed the way he wrote poetry. Owen was in awe of Sassoon as was shown when Sassoon changed the title of one of Owen’s most famous poems. Owen had used the title “Anthem to Dead Youth” because of the finality of what so many young men could expect. On the original, Sassoon crossed out the word “Dead” and replaced it with “Doomed”. Owen accepted the change seemingly without question and the poem became “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. Sassoon also gave Owen a simple piece of advice with regards to writing poetry: “Sweat your guts out.”
In the spring of 1918, Owen released a short book of the poems he had written. The preface to the collection starts: “This book is not about heroes.” The preface also contains: “My subject is war and the pity of war; the poetry is in the pity.” The poems in the collection were blunt and told about warfare as it was, not sparing the reader nor glossing over the nastiness of what Owen had observed. While well received by the literary world, it would be many more years before these poems received the acclaim that they now get.
In June 1918 Owen was past fit and he rejoined his regiment and in August as the war was moving towards it end, he was sent to France.
Owen was awarded the Military Cross for bravery while in action near Amiens. His citation read:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on 1st/2nd October 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun in an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.”
Wilfred Owen was killed on November 4th while leading his men into battle at the Sambre-Oise Canal. His unit had been ordered to cross the canal and engage the enemy. He had been told that there should be “no retirement under any circumstances.” His unit tried to cross the canal on cork pontoons and they were cut to pieces by well dug in German machine guns.
Wilfred Owen is buried at the CWGC cemetery at Ors. He was 25 when he died.
His parents received news of his death on November 11th – Armistice Day.
The poems of Wilfred Owen are well known but he has not found total support from those in the same ‘profession’. Owen’s was posthumously criticised for immersing the reader in nothing but pity and some, such as Adrian Caesar, believed that all Owen did was to concentrate on the misery of war and failed to examine other aspects of warfare such as comradeship and acts of bravery. As a result, Caesar wrote that his poems had “an air of unremitting artificiality” about them. In 1936, W B Yeats deliberately omitted Owen from an entry in the ‘Oxford Book of Modern Verse’ believing that Owen only had one story to tell. Yeat’s also believed that Owen had been too concerned about his own personal advancement to make his poems truly authentic about life for soldiers in World War One. However, the anti-war movement of the early 1960’s latched onto his poems and just over 45 years after his death he found the fame his mother had so desired for him.