A hundred years ago, a week before the end of the First World War, Wilfred Owen died in action. In verse and prose, he speaks to us still
(© Tijl Vercaimer CC BY 2.0)
Wilfred Owen hoped to survive the bloody campaign of autumn 1918 that brought the German army to its knees. In the year since he had been sent back from the Somme to recover from shellshock (PTSD), he had flowered as a poet, his work speaking with a passionate intensity of the horrors of the war, and the suffering of the men who fought. The first, posthumous edition of his work appeared in 1920, edited by his friend Siegfried Sassoon. It carried the famous preface that Owen himself had written in anticipation of publication:
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.
The Preface shows that Owen was eager to see his poems in print. He was also excited by the prospect of literary fame: during and after his convalescence he had met H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Robert Graves, Osbert Sitwell and numerous other literati who had recognised his talent. Post-war life would have been exciting for a young man who had found his vocation in the trenches and was determined that the bellicose hypocrisy of politicians and jingoists would never again send millions of young men to be slaughtered in mud and squalor.
Owen’s poetry speaks for itself, and after his death helped to change the British public’s understanding of war. Arguably, it also altered British military policy, which in the Second World War was notably more sparing with the lives of its men. However, the story of his short life is told not in his poetry but in 673 surviving letters which constitute a vivid epistolary autobiography. Remarkably, most of them were written to his mother Susan Owen, who was not spared terrifying details of life and death on the western front.
Wilfred Owen was born at Oswestry in 1893, the eldest of four children. His father Tom was an assistant stationmaster at Birkenhead and Shrewsbury, and money was always short. Wilfred grew up an intelligent, sensitive boy with wide interests. He shared his mother’s strong evangelical faith. More importantly, he began to write poetry. Having failed to win a scholarship to Reading University, in 1913 he took himself off to Bordeaux to teach English. He remained in France for two years, working mostly as a private tutor. He also met the poet Laurent Tailhade, who encouraged him to persist with his poetry, and impressed him also with his rejection of religion.
In 1915, Owen returned to England, joined the Artists’ Rifles, and was sent for officer training. He wrote to his mother:
The Army as a life is a curious anomaly; here we are prepared — or preparing — to lay down our lives for another, the highest moral act possible, according to the Highest Judge, and nothing of this is apparent between the jostle of discipline and jest.
In June 1916 he was commissioned into the 5th battalion Manchester Regiment, based near Guildford. He found it, he confessed, stranger than when he had arrived in Bordeaux.
It is due to the complete newness of the country, the people, my dress, my duties, the dialect, the air, food, everything . . . The generality of the men are hard-handed, hard-headed miners, dogged, loutish, ugly. But I would trust them to advance under fire, and to hold their trench.
At the beginning of 1917, he was shipped off to France and posted to the 2nd battalion Manchester Regiment. This was a regular battalion, a distinction that Owen greatly prized:
It is a huge satisfaction to be going among well-trained troops and genuine “real-old” officers . . . here is a fine heroic feeling about being in France, and I am in perfect spirits. A tinge of excitement is about me, but excitement is always necessary to my happiness.
The real war soon tempered his enthusiasm. On January 16 , 1917 he wrote to his mother:
I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it. I held an advanced post, that is, a “dug-out” in the middle of No Man’s Land.
He went on to describe the mud, the shelling, the machine gun bullets, the inevitable casualties. The 2nd Manchesters endured extreme cold for several weeks, moving in and out of the line. In mid-March Owen fell into a deep dug-out while doing his rounds in the dark, and was sent to hospital suffering concussion and exhaustion. Returning after three weeks, he took part in a bloody but successful assault at Savy Wood. As he wrote to Susan:
Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells and bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench . . . Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open . . . The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days . . . A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank!
A few days after the battalion was finally relieved, his colonel noticed that Owen was behaving oddly, and he was returned to hospital with what was labelled neurasthenia. He enlarged on the horrors of “the Stunt” at Savy Wood to his sister Mary:
You know it was not the Bosche [sic] that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call 2/Lt Gaukroger), who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand. I hope you don’t.
His brother Colin received a long and extraordinary letter dated May 14, 1917:
The sensations of going over the top are about as exhilarating as those dreams of falling over a precipice, when you see the rocks at the bottom surging up to you. I woke up without being squashed. Some didn’t. There was an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly. There was no bugle and no drum for which I was very sorry. I kept up a kind of chanting sing-song: Keep the Line straight. Not so fast on the left! Steady on the left! Not so fast! Then we were caught in a Tornado of Shells. The various “waves” were all broken up and we carried on like a crowd moving off a cricket-field. When I looked back and the ground all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies, I felt no horror at all but only an exultation at having got through the Barrage.
The second part of this letter consists of a lengthy cod-Biblical litany, a sort of satire on the evangelical Christianity in which Owen no longer believed. In a letter to his mother, he points out the hypocrisy of Christians of all nations who support the war and think God is on their side.
I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom. Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace . . . Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear his voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life — for a friend. Is it spoken in English only and French? I do not believe so.
Owen was repatriated to Britain. At the Craiglockhart hospital outside Edinburgh, he slowly began to recover under the imaginative care of Dr W.H.R. Rivers. The arrival of Sassoon a month later transformed his life, and helped him to raise his poetry to new heights. It was here that he processed his experiences and sharpened his poetic technique, working and re-working masterworks such as “Anthem for Doomed Youth”.
He resumed light duties with a training battalion at Scarborough and enjoyed social life in London with poets and writers. Although only four of his poems had been published, he had arrived and, to his great delight, was admired and liked by his peers.
The first half of 1918 saw the British army nearly broken by the German spring offensive, but by late summer the tide had turned and Owen was sent back to the war. He was back with the 2nd Manchesters in mid-September.
On October 1, the regiment attacked the German line at Fonsomme, gaining all its objectives and capturing 210 prisoners but at great cost. Owen was awarded an immediate Military Cross, having taken command of his company when its commander and all but one of the other officers became casualties. As usual, he spared his mother none of the details:
I lost all my earthly faculties and fought like an angel . . . I am now commanding the company, and in the line had a boy lance-corporal as my Sergeant Major. With this corporal who stuck to me and shadowed me like your prayers, I captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners . . . My nerves are in perfect order. I came out in order to help these boys — directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their suffering that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. Of whose blood lies yet crimson on my shoulder where his head was — and where so lately yours was — I must not now write.
The Germans repeatedly counter-attacked Owen’s fearfully exposed position, but he held it until relieved by a fresh battalion. The other surviving officer, Lieut Foulkes, MC, wrote later:
This is where I admired his work — in leading his remnants, in the middle of the night, back to safety. I remember feeling how glad I was that it was not my job to know how to get out. I was content to follow him with the utmost confidence.
The war was clearly coming to an end, though the Germans resisted ferociously. The Manchesters moved up to the line of the Sambre Canal in anticipation of an assault crossing. On October 31, Owen wrote his last extraordinary letter to his mother:
. . . So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts. On my left the Coy. Commander snores on a bench: other officers repose on wire beds behind me. At my right hand, Kellett . . . radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the Receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing but a gleam of white teeth & wheeze of jokes. Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes into the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! Yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & 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. I hope you are as warm as I am: as serene in your room as I am here . . . Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. Ever Wilfred x
At 0545 hrs on November 4 the attack commenced on the heavily defended canal. The bridge-building engineers were all killed or wounded, and the Manchesters took what cover they could. New attempts were made to cross using duckboards, and it was as he moved around encouraging his men that Owen was killed. The Manchesters’ attack was a bloody failure. Only two platoons got across the canal before the duckboard bridge was destroyed by shelling. One other officer and 22 other ranks were also killed. Three officers and 81 other ranks were wounded, 18 other ranks missing. The canal was crossed a mile or two away by another regiment and the advance continued. A week later came the ceasefire; on the same day Susan Owen learned of Wilfred’s death.
The profound friendship that Owen reveals in his letters goes a long way to explain how these troops could advance into such murderous peril, though they knew the wretched war was nearly over. There was also discipline and, after four years of slaughter, dogged professionalism to carry them on. English poetry may not yet have been fit to speak of them, but Wilfred Owen’s last letter, and their own actions on the Sambre Canal, spoke most eloquently.