Wilfred Owen – The truth of war

 

Wilfred E S Owen in officer’s uniform of Manchester Regiment.

 

11 November 1918; a day of jubilation for many, but a day of heartbreak for others. The mother of Wilfred Owen, one of the most prominent First World War poets, was not informed of his death until Armistice Day, when she thought he was finally coming home. He had been killed a week earlier, on 4 November 1918. In this guest post written to mark the centenary of the Armistice, Anna Hook takes a look at Wilfred Owen’s story – as an example of a young man who served King and Country, but like many others was taken too soon.

 

  •   Background

Born on 18 March 1893 in Oswestry in Shropshire, Wilfred was the eldest son of Thomas Owen and Harriett Susan Shaw. He discovered his poetic calling in his teenage years and began writing. In 1911 Wilfred worked as an assistant for the Vicar of Dunsden hoping this would lead to a scholarship to Oxford University, however in 1913 he told the Vicar that Christianity was contrary to science and poetry, after this encounter Wilfred went on to work as an English teacher in at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, France in September 1913. Wilfred remained in France after the outbreak of the war in 1914.

 

Owen family.

 

  • The soldier

In October 1915, Wilfred returned to England and enlisted in the London Regiment, and was later commissioned into the Manchester Regiment 5th Battalion in June 1916. However, Wilfred did not leave for the continent until January 1917 where he joined the Manchesters as an Officer reinforcement. In spring 1917 a shell explosion sent Wilfred flying into the air, although his was reasonably physically fit, the incident left him with ‘shell-shock’.

 

Officers of 3/5th Manchester Regiment

 

Wilfred was sent back to Britain to recover in June 1917, he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh where he met distinguished war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who he admired. Sassoon became Wilfred’s mentor after discovering a common interest in using their poetry to tell the public of the true brutality of the war from a soldier’s perspective, it was around this time Wilfred wrote “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est“.

 

  • Dulce et Decorum Est

This was the last poem that Wilfred wrote – he died just a week before the Armistice, on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

 

Grave of Lieutenant Wilfred Edward Salter Owen M C. of the 5th Battalion Manchester Regiment.

 

  • Posthumous publication

Wilfred’s work was published in ‘Wheels’ anthology in 1919. Before his death Wilfred was creating a series of poems he wished to publish upon his return home, this would happen in 1920 when a book of Wilfred’s poems titled “Poems of Wilfred Owen” was published with an introduction by his friend and mentor Siegfried Sassoon.

100 years later we pay tribute to Wilfred and many millions of people who played their part in the First World War. Share your stories with us this Remembrance Sunday.

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