Although these do not appear to be two sides of the same coin, they are the two halves of leading war poet Wilfred Owen, whose poetry paved the way for truth in an age where Rupert Brooks and Jessie Popes were filling the pages with idealistic pro-war verse. Only 25 years old at the time of his death, Wilfred Owen managed to write around 69 poems and fragments of poems in total including the likes of ‘Inspection’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, and ‘Dulce et Decorum’. With a life that was frequently difficult, Wilfred Owen is considered to be the greatest First World War poet of the time and has been immortalized in several books and movies such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a fictionalized account of Owen and Sassoon’s relationship while they were at Craiglockhart.
Wilfred Owen’s Early Life
He was born Wilfred Edward Salter Owen on the 18th of March, 1893, in Plas Wilmont, a 19th-century villa in the middle of Oswestry, Shropshire. He was the oldest of four children, and was of mixed English and Welsh ancestry, with a well-to-do family on his mother’s side. Susan Shaw and Tom Owen had married in 1891, and moved immediately into the family house, Plas Wilmont, although this was not to be their final resting place.
On 15th January 1897, Edward Shaw, Susan’s father, and Wilfred’s maternal grandfather died. Due to his death, the family found that he had been nearly bankrupt and so could not retain the family home, and moved from Plas Wilmont to Birkenhead, and then to Shrewsbury, following Thomas, who had been employed by a railway satin. In 1898, when he was promoted to the stationmaster, the Owen family moved a total of four times – three times in Tranmere, and one more time where they went back to Shrewsbury.
Wilfred attended the Shrewsbury Technical School throughout his youth, focusing greatly on botany and English literature. It was here that his interest in poetry flourished, although later on in life; in his earlier years, Wilfred Owen was fanatical about religion. He would read a passage of the Bible every day, and would hold evening sermons in his house on Sunday, armed with his mother’s linen and a cardboard miter. Aside from religion, Owen was also a great lover of the outdoors. He formed the Astronomical, Geological, and Botanical society with his two cousins, and lived in a fairly secluded area, with great historical significance. Although he had studied botany in school, living in Shrewsbury led him to develop an interest in geology, and then again in archaeology, and in 1909, Owen made the first expedition to Wroxeter in order to study the site of a fallen Roman city.
In 1911, Owen studied for and passed the University of London’s Matriculation exam, though not with the first-class honours he needed which would provide him with a scholarship, the only way that Owen could manage to attend such a prestigious and expensive university. He took up an unpaid position as a lay assistant to a reverend, who traded help with his parish duties for free food, lodging, and money for tuition.
It was not a resounding success. Owen and the reverend were too unlike each other, and Owen lost his interest in theology, the subject he was to study at University. Instead, he attended botany classes at the University of Reading, and was encouraged by the Head of the English department to further his studies in writing and in literature.
Owen then realized that religion meant more to him than literature, and in 1913, suffering from congestion, he sat a scholarship exam for University College, Reading. Owen failed, pushing him, instead, to take up a part-time teaching position at the Berlitz School, in Bordeaux, falling in love with France in the process. As the tutor to an 11-year-old French girl, Owen had reached the pinnacle of his life.
Shortly after, Germany invaded Belgium, and the First World War started.
On 21 October 1915, Owen enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles Officers’ Training Corps, and for the next seven months, trained in Essex. He was commissioned as a probationary second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment.
Owen found soldiering difficult. He derided his troops, and held them in contempt, expressing to his mother that he thought them no more than ‘expressionless lumps’ – however, Owen changed his mind rapidly as a series of terrible events befell him. First, he fell into a shell hole and came out of it with a concussion. Then he was blown into the sky by a trench mortar, and spent several days on an embankment in Savy Wood near the remains of a fellow officer. After this traumatic experience, he was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia – shell shock – and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for treatment.
During his time recuperating, he met poet Siegfried Sassoon, and made friends with Edinburgh’s artistic circle. He returned to the war in 1918, partially due to Siegried Sassoon, who had been shot in the head in an incident of what was apparently friendly fire, and put on sick leave for the remaining duration of the war. Feeling an urgent need to replace Sassoon’s now-silenced criticism of the war, Owen returned to France, and to the front line.
Almost immediately afterward, he led the units of the Second Manchester regiment on the march, and rampaged over several enemy strong points, for which he was awarded the Military Cross, though it was only in 1919 that this fact was published in the London Gazette as having been received for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line’. It was also noted that he ‘personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy’.
Death and Afterwards
A mere month after this attack, Owen was killed. One week later, his mother received the telegram of his death as the bells were ringing in celebration of Armistice. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery.
After Owen’s death, Sassoon compiled a list of all of Owen’s poetry, and published them in a volume with Edith Sitwell in 1920. There are memorials to Wilfred Owen in both Birkenhead and Shrewsbery, and in 1985, Owen was immortalized on a slate stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, with the line, ‘my subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity’.