Wilfred Owen

Although he lived only 25 years, the British poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) became one of the most well known of the War Poets, a school of English lyricists who wrote of their experiences and impressions during World War I. Four months at war was all that he needed to grasp his subject, which was not the heroism of war, but the pity of it.

Born in Oswestry, England, on March 18, 1893, Owen was the eldest of four children raised by parents of modest means. His father held a job with the railway. His mother was strict in her religious beliefs yet generous in her affections for her children. In their evangelical Anglican household, Owen and his siblings were well versed in biblical themes and teachings. Although by his twentieth year Owen would renounce his evangelist faith, Christian imagery remained strong in his imagination and often registered prominently in his poetry.

Owen's family moved to Birkenhead in 1897, and from 1900 to 1907 he attended the Birkenhead Institute. A subsequent move to Shrewsbury prompted his transfer to the Shrewsbury Technical School at the age of 14. By this time, Owen had already felt the pull toward poetry, and his mother warmly encouraged these ambitions. Desiring a higher education, he studied botany at University College, Reading, before matriculating at the University of London. A shortage of money for tuition fees eventually forced Owen to withdraw, however, and in 1911 he sought work at a vicarage in Dunsden, a town near Reading. There he lived for 18 months as a pupil and lay assistant to Reverend Herbert Wigan. At the parish he worked with the sick and the elderly, the illiterate and the destitute, developing a compassion that would inform his later work as both a soldier and a poet. While he was sensitive to the hardships of the parishioners, Owen struggled with his own belief in the redemptive power of Christianity.

During a bout with depression, Owen suffered a physical and emotional collapse that put an end to his stay at Dunsden. In February 1913 he recuperated at home in Shrewsbury, where he remained for six months. By September he had taken a position teaching English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, France. After a year of working at the school, Owen stayed on in France to serve as a tutor for young boys. In the summer of 1914, he worked for a family at Bagneres de Bigorre in the Pyrenees, where he met the French poet Laurent Tailhade. By December, he had returned to Bordeaux to tutor for an expatriate British family. During his time abroad he had gone home only to visit, but talk of war eventually drew him back to England. It was with plans to enlist in his country's armed forces that Owen took leave of France in the late summer of 1915.

Joined the War

By autumn, Owen had begun his training with the 3/ 28th London Regiment, later known as the 2nd Artists Rifles Officers Training Corps. After serving in this capacity for eight months, he was commissioned into the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment at Milford Camp, near Witley. There he demonstrated resourcefulness and ingenuity: With a fellow officer, he designed an improvement to the gas mask. More than a year later, in October 1917, he would write the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est," in which an episode with lethal gas sends soldiers into "[a]n ecstasy of fumbling,/ Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time." Although the poem describes the senseless horrors of war, its title ironically evokes a Latin quotation from Horace: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," or "Sweet and decorous it is to die for one's country."

Months would pass before Owen began to acquire the intimate knowledge of war that he would bring to his poetry. In total, he completed 14 months of training, including a musketry course that he took at Mychett Camp in Farnborough in July 1916. Classified as 1st-Class Shot at the end of the course, he rejoined the Manchesters at Witley Camp later in the summer. It was not until January 1917 that his regiment was drafted to the Infantry Base Depot at Etaples, France. Within days, they joined the front line at Serre, where Owen was put in charge of "A" company. Though Owen did not remain on the front line, he and his men embarked on a risky mission to occupy a former German bunker in No Man's Land. An incident there, in which a sentry that he had posted was blinded during a bombardment, later became the subject of his poem "The Sentry." He and his men endured the extreme cold of those winter days; many suffered from frostbite and one soldier froze to death before he could be evacuated to safety. Owen was beginning to amass the difficult experiences that he would write about so compellingly.

After a month of combat, Owen was sent to join a Transport Officers' Course at Abbeville. It was a coveted position, safely away from the front line. In Abbeville he stayed in a house that lacked heat, and his milk and other goods froze, but that did not deter him from writing such poems as "Exposure" and "Happiness." As always, he corresponded with his mother faithfully, reporting on his work as a soldier and poet. But Owen's sojourn in Abbeville was brief, and he returned to his battalion on March 1. Shortly thereafter, on March 14, he suffered a concussion from a fall and was sent home. He soon recovered and returned to the line. Yet he was again unwell by May 1917, and was diagnosed as being a victim of shell shock and trench fever. After being treated at a casualty clearing station, he returned to England for further care, first at Netley Hospital in Hampshire, and later at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.

Honed His Poetic Powers

It was while recovering at the hospital in Edinburgh that Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, an army captain and an established poet who wrote passionately of his experiences in the war. The meeting marked a turning point in Owen's career as a poet. Sassoon admired the younger writer's poetry and encouraged him to keep going, pushing him to further develop his style. He introduced Owen to the writer Robert Graves and others, welcoming him into a circle of intellectuals and validating his stature as a fellow poet. At first Sassoon's influence was perhaps too strong, and Owen began to write poetry that echoed his contemporary's style. But he soon found his own unique approach to writing about the war; his style matured, as did his characteristic use of such techniques as pararhyme, alliteration, and assonance.

Meeting Sassoon sparked a bout of creativity in Owen, who had begun penning his finest verses during his recuperation at Edinburgh. In October 1917, just prior to his discharge from Craiglockhart, he wrote "Greater Love" ("Red lips are not so red/As the stained stones kissed by the English dead") and "Anthem for Doomed Youth" ("What passing bells for those who die as cattle?/—Only the monstrous anger of the guns"). After a three-week leave, which he had been granted upon his discharge from the hospital, Owen was posted to the 5th Manchesters, a reserve battalion based in Yorkshire, England. His duties included acting as a mess secretary at Clarence Gardens Hotel (now the Clifton Hotel) in Scarborough. When he was able to take time away from his clerical duties, the poet escaped to his room to write. Here he produced "Miners," the first of his poems to be published.

Owen's reprieve from the war was further extended when he was assigned to a post at Ripon Army Camp in March 1918. Here he was able to rent a quiet cottage in the rural outskirts of Borrage Lane. This was a productive period for Owen, in which he wrote and rewrote such poems as "Strange Meeting," "Futility," and "Mental Cases." His experience with shell shock, as well as his encounters with other troubled men in the psychiatric hospital, figured prominently in many of these poems. He remained at Ripon until he was fit for service, and returned to the 5th Manchesters in June 1918. Two months later Sassoon returned from battle severely wounded, and Owen was able to visit him in the hospital. Their reunion was brief, as Owen was to go off once again to the war in France, rejoining the 2nd Manchesters as an officer reinforcement in September 1918.

Killed in Action

It did not take long for Owen to become reacquainted with the horrors of war. His battalion was to advance upon the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line, originally known as the Hindenburg Support Line. It was a German-occupied territory organized into trenches and concrete fortifications— the last such territory to be attacked by the British before open warfare ensued. When the 2nd Manchesters launched their attack on October 1, 1918, they successfully challenged the enemy's defenses. Owen was one of a number of men who captured a German gun position and resisted a harsh counter-attack, advancing to the farthest point occupied by the British along the western front. It was a victory for England as well as for Owen, who was recommended for a Military Cross for his fine leadership during the battle.

Owen was proud of his Military Cross, but he did not live long enough to fully relish his achievements. He was killed in action by the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal near the French town of Ors on November 4, 1918—just one week before the armistice. During his final battle, in which the battalion attempted to cross the canal to attack the Germans who held the opposite bank, Owen was last seen traversing the canal on a raft, in a hail of artillery fire. In his last letter to his mother, written not far from the canal, in the basement of a house in Pommereuil, Owen assured her that he was happy and, at least momentarily, safe. He wrote: "I am more oblivious than alas yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines."

News of Owen's death did not reach his home at Shrewsbury until November 11, the day that marked the end of the Great War. The poetry was all that remained, and the poet's admirers were determined to see them published. In 1919, seven of his poems appeared in Wheels and, in the following year, Sassoon took on the task of publishing The Poems of Wilfred Owen and writing an introduction to the posthumous collection. Often paired with Sassoon as the greatest of Britain's War Poets, Owen lives on in his verse, which chronicles the experience of war without sentimentality and empty paeans to heroism. The poems remain as vivid testimony of physical and emotional struggle during one of humankind's darkest periods.

Further Reading on Wilfred Owen

"Wilfred Edward Salter Owen," from "The Knitting Circle: Poetry," www.southbank-university.ac.uk/~stafflag/wilfredowen.html (November 2, 1999).

"Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)," http://bewoner.dma.be/ericlaer/cultural/owen.html (November 2, 1999).

"Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)," http://www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/LostPoets/Owen2.html(November 2, 1999).

The Wilfred Owen Association, http://www.wilfred.owen.association.mcmail.com (November 2, 1999).

"The Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive," http://www.hcu.ox.ac.uk/jtap (November 2, 1999).