More than any other conflict, the Great War inspired writers of all generations and classes, most notably among combatants.
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier, regarded by many as one of the leading poets of the First World War. His shocking, realistic war poetry on the horrors of trench warfare sat in stark contrast to both the public perception of war at the time, and to the confidently patriotic verse written earlier by war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Some of his best-known works-most of which were published posthumously-include Dulce Et Decorum Est, Insensibility, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Futility and Strange Meeting.
He was on the Continent teaching until he visited a hospital for the wounded and then decided, in September, 1915, to return to England and enlist. “I came out in order to help these boys – directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first” (October, 1918).
On 21 October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles. For the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. In January 1917 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant with The Manchester Regiment. Owen started the war as a cheerful and optimistic man, but he soon changed forever. After traumatic experiences, which included leading his platoon into battle and getting trapped for three days in a shell-hole, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was whilst recuperating at Craiglockhart that he was to meet fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter which was to transform Owen’s life.
After returning to the front, Owen led units of the Second Manchesters on 1 October 1918 to storm a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. He was killed in action on 4 November 1918, only one week before the end of the war. For his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action, he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross., the Citation of which appeared in the London Gazzette on 29.7.1919.
Owen is regarded by historians as the leading poet of the First World War, known for his war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare. His great friend, the poet Siegfried Sassoon had a profound effect on Owen’s poetic voice, and Owen’s most famous poems (Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth) show direct results of Sassoon’s influence.
Dulce et Decorum Est
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 disappointed shells that dropped 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 floundering 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 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.
The title and the Latin exhortation of the final two lines are drawn from a poem of Horace (Odes iii 2.13):
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.”
“How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.”
These words were well known and often quoted by supporters of the war near its inception and, as such, were of particular importance to soldiers of the era.
Anthem For Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
The bells were ringing on November 11, 1918, in Shrewsbury to celebrate the Armistice when the doorbell rang at his parent’s home, bringing them the telegram telling them their son was dead.
“My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” – Owen.
Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds, -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm, – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?