Dulce et Decorum Est - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of Dulce et Decorum Est

Soldiers on the Western front are retreating from the front line in order to take rest. They are suffering from post-battle fatigue and so physically exhausted that they do not hear the sound of the gas shells quietly exploding behind them. Though they try to get their gas masks on quickly, one soldier is unable to protect himself in time. Through his own mask, Owen watches helplessly as the man is unable to breathe in a sea of gas, an image that also haunts his dreams.

WWI image gassed and woundedOwen challenges the reader that if they were to witness this suffering in their dreams, they would not tell young people that it is a sweet and honourable thing to die for one’s country, which Owen considers a lie.

Investigating Dulce et Decorum Est

  • Owen called this ‘a gas poem’. Explore how Owen describes the gas attack in the poem.
    • How does he use it to further his argument against war?

Commentary on Dulce et Decorum Est


Owen wrote this poem at Craiglockhart in 1917. It was probably redrafted at Ripon in 1918. Sending the poem home in a letter to his mother Owen wrote:

Here is a gas poem, done yesterday. The famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes, iii.ii.13) means of course It is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! And decorous!’

Latin was one of the most important subjects taught in English public schools and the Latin phrase (from a poem by the classical Roman poet Horace) would have been familiar at the time to well-educated boys. 

Ironically, as can be seen in the opening shots of the film version of Eric Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, the very same sentiments were being instilled into German schoolboys.

Gas and its aftermath

Gas was a weapon of war from 1914 onwards and although the British expressed outrage at its use by the Germans, they retaliated in kind. A range of chemicals was employed including tear-gas, chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas. At first gas was transported in canisters which required two men to carry them. Later the mustard gas, which is described in Dulce et Decorum Est, was delivered by artillery shell, the Five-Nines (so called because they were 5.9 inches or 150 mm long) which Owen used in an earlier draft of line 8. These shells could be dropped without warning, with the minimum of noise. At first troops might think they were duds, allowing the gas time to escape before the soldiers were aware of the gas and able to take the very necessary precautions.

World War I - Loading a battery of gas shells

Gas was not an efficient killer, rather it left horrendous injuries that demoralised the men and left them with disabilities for the rest of their lives. A man ‘gassed’ in WWI could live on into old age with blindness, respiratory problems, burns and stress. Records show that it could take a man up to four weeks to die after a gas attack. In Dulce et Decorum Est Owen shows in graphic detail the immediate effects of a gas attack.

More on gas and its aftermath: Vera Brittain, a nurse at the Front, wrote that she wished that those who talked about going on with the war at all costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. She referred to ‘Great mustard coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together... the men were always fighting for breath with voices a mere whisper saying that their throats were closing and that they would choke.’     

Protection from a gas attack

All soldiers were issued with gas masks, many of which had design problems. Because no one had expected that poison gas would ever be used in warfare, early masks were crude and clumsy, so difficult to get on that a soldier had time to be gassed before he could do so. The purpose of the mask was to stop the wearer from ‘drowning’ in the poison gas. Just as breathing in water stops the oxygen supply, so did breathing in poison gas.

‘My friend’

Dulce et Decorum Est was originally entitled ‘To Jessie Pope’. Jessie Pope was an extremely patriotic poet and journalist. Owen wrote Dulce et Decorum Est as much as a response to her pro-war verses (such as The Call, below) as to describe the horrors of a gas attack. The use of the term ‘My Friend’ is ironic. Pope was someone who actively encouraged the young to go and die. She was, in Owen’s view, their enemy since she sought their death. 

More on Jessie Pope’s poem The Call?

Investigating commentary on Dulce et Decorum Est

  • Read Jessie Pope’s poem The Call. What in this poem do you think would have particularly angered Owen?
    • Are you able to see the influence of the Latin phrase ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in The Call?
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