Owen, Wilfred Contents
The impact of The Great War
When war broke out in August 1914 Owen, who was by then twenty-one years old, chose to stay in Bordeaux, which had temporarily become the capital of France. By early 1915 the English Channel was declared too dangerous to cross, so it wasn’t until August of that year that Owen came back to England.
Joining The Artists’ Rifles
In October 1915 Owen joined the Artists’ Rifles Officers’ Training Corps because, in his own words, he ‘wanted to fight’. In an early poem, The Ballad of Peace and War, Owen writes that it is ‘sweet and meet’ (Dulce et Decorum Est) to live at peace but ‘sweeter and far more meet to die’ in war ‘with brothers’. [By 1917 Dulce et Decorum Est pro patria mori has become ‘the old Lie’ (see Texts in detail > Wilfred Owen > Dulce et Decorum Est).]
During his early training in London, Owen met Harold Monro, a significant promoter of English poetry (with links to both the Georgian and Imagist poets). Monro’s own poetry had contributed to Owen’s crisis of faith but Owen was encouraged to show him what he had written so far.
Class, poetry and warfare
Owen’s relatively humble education and social position initially set him apart from many other writers. For example, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Scott Moncrieff were all public school boys with private means. However, Owen’s ability as a writer ultimately gave him access to this group of upper-middle class poets.
Over time, the high number of casualties in the trenches in the first years of the war meant that the upper class public school boys, who had automatically been made Lieutenants on the Western Front, were replaced by men and boys from the lower ranks of society, such as Wilfred Owen
Owen’s war career
- In June 1916 Owen took a commission in the Manchester Regiment as a Second Lieutenant
- In December 1916 he arrived in Etaples, France
- January 16th 1917 Owen led his platoon towards the front line on the Somme. In a dug-out in no man's land occurred the events which inspired The Sentry (Texts in detail > Wilfred Owen > The Sentry).
- Late January 1917 Owen and his platoon went up to the front line where they suffered from the cold weather that Owen wrote about in Futility (Texts in detail > Wilfred Owen > Futility) and Exposure (Texts in detail > Wilfred Owen > Exposure).
- March 1917 Owen suffered from concussion and was sent to the 13th Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly. Here, walking by the canal and the river Somme, he saw the hospital barge which gave him the idea for the poem of that name (Texts in detail > Wilfred Owen > Hospital Barge)
- April 1917 Owen and his platoon returned to the front line for twelve days. An incident at Quivières, where Owen and his men were trapped in a cellar, resulted in Owen again being sent to Gailly, this time with shell shock. From there Owen returned to England and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.
More on the cellar incident...: In May 1917, Owen wrote home:
You must not entertain the least concern about me because I am here. I certainly was shaky when I first arrived. But today Dr Browne was hammering at my knees without any response whatever. (At first I used to execute the High Kick whenever he touched them) i.e. Reflex Actions quite normal. You know it was not the Bosche 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 nearby, but in various places around and about, if you understand. I hope you don't!
Craiglockhart was a psychiatric hospital for the treatment of shell shocked officers. They were described as suffering from neuraesthenia. Owen was sent there in the summer of 1917 until November that year.
Whilst there, Owen continued to write poetry. He became the editor of the hospital magazine The Hydra and in July 1917 met Siegfried Sassoon, the established and published anti-war poet. Sassoon greatly influenced Owen’s own writing, particularly Anthem for Doomed Youth (see Texts in detail > Wilfred Owen > Anthem for Doomed Youth). He introduced Owen to another soldier poet, Robert Graves, to whom Owen showed the poem Disabled. This had been written as a result of what Owen had seen at Craiglockhart, coupled with experiences at the front (see Texts in detail > Wilfred Owen > Disabled).
Owen was discharged from Craiglockhart in November 1917. He visited London, where he again met Harold Munro. Under Monro’s patronage Owen, who was now becoming known as a poet, met a wide range of writers and intellectuals. These included H G Wells and Charles Scott Moncrieff, the academic and writer.
Moncrieff had already met Owen at the wedding of Robert Graves. Moncrieff had been severely injured at the front and had a post at the War Office. He now tried very hard to get Owen a home posting, but failed. Owen's biographer, Damien Hibberd suggests that the two may have had a 'brief sexual relationship that somehow failed'.
After London, Owen spent time in Ripon and Scarborough, both in North Yorkshire, recuperating and undertaking light duties prior to his final return to the front line. It was during this period that he redrafted many of his poems and wrote new ones.
A voice against war
Owen could well have stayed in Britain for the rest of the war. However, Sassoon, who had already returned to the front line, was again sent home to recuperate (after being shot in the head). Without Sassoon to depict the grim reality of destruction, Owen felt he could only protest and show the actuality of the men’s suffering if he fought himself. Almost as soon as he arrived back in France as a soldier, Owen was horrified by the situation in which men were serving. While some of his poems protest against the propaganda of war (of which Dulce et Decorum Est is the most angry), The Send Off, Exposure and Spring Offensive focus on the men and their suffering. War and the pity of war were now Owen’s chief concerns.
Owen’s return to the front
- In June 1918 Owen re-joined the Manchester regiment. At the same time, two of his poems, Hospital Barge and Futility, were published in The Nation, a journal which printed anti-war poetry
- In August 1918 Owen arrived in Ètaples from where he and the regiment were sent to Amiens
- During September/October 1918 Owen took part in the attack on the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line, for which he was awarded the MC (Military Cross) for gallantry. When in action near St Quentin in Northern France, Owen captured a German machine gun with which he proceeded to kill several German soldiers
- On 29th October 1918 Owen returned to the front line
- On 4th November 1918, whilst defending the Oise–Somme canal near Ors, Owen was killed in action during the dawn raid
- On 8th November Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen was buried in Ors village cemetery on the Somme
- On 11th November 1918 The Armistice was signed at 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. That same day Owen’s parents received the news of his death while the bells of Shrewsbury’s churches rang out, for the first time in four years, in celebration of the peace which had cost so many lives.
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