Surrounded by their dead, bombarded day and night, left to squalor and misery, it’s no wonder that the soldiers of World War I all, in some way or another, suffered from shellshock – and Wilfred Owen, the poet of ‘Insensibility,’ was no different. As a private officer, he was at the forefront of some of the most brutal battles, despite having only joined in 1917.
Suffice it to say, Wilfred Owen’s poetry reflected all too accurately the trauma of warfare and the anger of those condemned to fight on behalf of glory and nationalism. Owen, himself a perpetually contradictory character, was always a stern, disapproving sort of child, however, one can hardly blame Owen’s predilection towards judgment when one remembers the fate of the majority of soldiers who signed up – through misguided pride or for some other reason – to fight in a war that took them in, young and old, and spat them back up in pieces, or not at all.
June 9th 1916
We fell in at 8-30p.m and entered ‘Wood Street communication trench’ and passed the old fire trench and went up ‘New Wood Street’ which was only about 2 ft deep, then got on the top, passed our front line which was being held by ‘The Rifle Rangers’, through a gap in the barbed wire, we were paced out so many paces per man as a digging task, and told to dig ourselves in as quickly as possible.
We worked hard for about half an hour when the Germans opened heavy machine gun fire on us and swept us like a blanket, and being only 100 yds from the enemy lines it proved very trying, we carried on, off and on, for quarter of an hour when, when he got more machine guns sweeping that sector, by this time my part of the trench was about 18″ deep so I could lie in it.
The machine guns keep on sweeping and the enemy opened out a ‘miniweffer’ (trench mortar) barrage, four of our rifles were laying on the ground about 4 ft away and these got a direct hit, that was the last I saw of my rifle, also blew the trench away and left us as it were on the open ground.
The man in front of me called for help and on going to him I found he had a piece of shrapnel in the left shoulder blade, this was Private Joe (Hurnival of Runcorn), also he was hit on the lower middle part of the back, many men at this time were calling for help, out of our Platoon we had three casualties L/Cpl Fineflow who was hit in the back and the pieces had pierced the lungs he was vomiting a lot of blood, and Pte Edward Coalthorpe (of Chester) who was hit in ribs and left arm, one man in No10 Platoon was also hit, Stretcher Bearer Mostan, he was serious as he was hit in the lower part of the stomach and between the legs, after we had got the wounded away we returned to billets, it was 6a.m.
— extract from the diary of Thomas Fredrick Littler.
‘Insensibility’ is one of Owen’s most judgemental poems. In it, Owen launches his vitriol full-blast at the people who are to blame for this war, the people that he himself believes are the reason for this war, this brutal, unremitting battle that left thousands dead on either side, and were decorated in the most oblique ways by the poets who never fought in battle and the ministers who sent them to die, but stayed well away from the front line, and the generals, most notably General Haigh, who came up with increasingly hare-brained schemes to cross into German territory, most of which left a greater number of people dead. Owen spares no language in making it patently clear to the reader how disgusted he is with the way soldiers are treated.
Analysis of Insensibility
‘Insensibility’ is a poem made up of little snapshots of instances, written from Owen’s point of view, and opening the idea that soldiers are better off with as little emotion as possible. It is one of Owen’s longest poems at 350 words, with six stanzas of varying lines and sentence length. ‘Insensibility’ was written at Ripon in April 1918, and remains one of Owen’s most cutting poems. It was written to largely criticize the inadequate and dangerous methods that the generals and field marshalls used in order to achieve their goal of obtaining German guns, or taking German territory. On more than one occasion, Field Marshall Douglas Haig would have his soldiers attempt to march across No Man’s Land while within the sights of German gunners who would, naturally, shoot them down, often shooting so many British soldiers that they themselves took pity on the struggling infantry and stopped, allowing them to take their dead back to the trenches. Other brilliant schemes of field marshalls included attempting to tunnel into German territory from underneath No Man’s Land (the tunnels would often collapse, trapping men underground).
It’s said to be written as a response to William Wordsworth‘s poem, ‘Character of the Happy Warrior’, which stated: ‘
Who is the happy warrior?
Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be.
Owen, being Owen, uses the format of the ode – the very same format that Wordsworth was so fond of using – and twists it to suit his purpose, thereby allowing for the touch of historical Romanticism in his work while, at the same time, delivering his message and the retort to Wordsworth.
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.
In what is perhaps one of the most infamous lines that Owen has ever written, the poem opens chillingly with: ‘happy are men who yet before they are killed / can let their veins run cold’, lauding the men whose hearts have grown cold and hard with loss, eschewing the idea of the compassionate soldier – in Owen’s world, there is no room for compassion, as the very men whom should have had compassion for the dying soldiers have sent them again to fight in the bloodied battlefields of the Somme, and thus why would the soldiers themselves have compassion?
For Owen, it is defense, as much as a necessity, not to have compassion. There is a certain desperation to the way that he writes the line, happy are men who yet before they are killed / can let their veins run cold. It implies that there is a given end to the soldiers –that no matter how talented or lucky they are, they will wind up in the ground the same as everyone else, and this cuts chillingly to the core of the poem: that the soldiers themselves have no room left for any human emotion before their deaths. They exist as machinery, machinations of the British Empire, to be used and thrown away as one sees fit.
The line ‘sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers’ draws a horrific image in the brain of the reader. The casual way that Owen references the alleys ‘cobbled with their brothers’ shows not only the cold-heartedness of the reader, but also the sheer scale and loss of the British army: to have alleyways ‘cobbled’ with the British dead implies that there is so much routine death involved, and so much of it is ignored (note the term ‘cobbled’, used in such a way that it implies the soldiers are nothing more than cheap leather, to be thrown away at will).
But these are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling
The irony of the statement – condemning poets in a poem – is not lost on the reader, however, it smacks of Owen attempting to reach towards the source, of Owen attempting to put his message across to a wider audience, in the only way that he knew how. Poetry was a much-lauded artform in World War I, and although Owen’s poems would not have gotten the aplomb that Rupert Brooke’s – a pro-war poet – did, it was a way of ensuring that his message would remain immortalize and read by a wider circle of people than if he’d written a letter to Parliament – it was a way, also, of making obvious the shame of the British empire, the shame of their treatment of the soldiers.
Compassion, ultimately, is useless; that is what Owen is trying to get across to the reader. Nobody cares about the soldiers, not even the soldiers themselves – they are just ‘men, gaps for filling’, interchangeable and forgotten as quickly as they are replaced. Through this very poem, through the very act of stating it and putting it into words, Owen’s attempt refutes this view – that is, Owen writing a poem about the uncaring nature of soldiers has a dual purpose. On the one hand, it does bring forth the shame and the callousness of the British army; on the other hand, it shows that there are soldiers in the army who feel altogether too much for the dead and that Owen is one of them.
And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on armies’ decimation.
The second stanza, like the first, continues on this thread: compassion kills, whether quickly or slowly, the end result is the same. ‘And some cease feeling / Even themselves or for themselves.’, writes Owen. At the time of his writing, the war had already been going on for around three years. The war, which was supposed to be over by Christmas, the war which was viewed almost brightly by the British elite, had, rather than going on for a few months, extended to two years. It is no surprise, then, that the British army, and the soldiers who were left alive from the earlier campaigns (including Ypres, the Somme, and Passchendaele), found ways of coping, or broke underneath the strain. After months of seeing their comrades nibbled on by rats, or shot at, after months of living underneath the constant driving rain, the bombardment of the Germans a cacophony in the background, months of waiting to die and never quite dying, but always witnessing other take your place, it was no wonder that the only solution they could conceivably adopt was dullness. ‘Dullness best solves / The tease and doubt of shelling’.
Thus the soldiers, Owen states, leave everything up to chance, including whether or not they live or die.
Part of the reason why the war was viewed such by Owen is the ridiculousness of it all. By the third year, very few soldiers clung to the idea of nationalistic pride and world-saving intent that they’d joined up within 1914, and in fact, soldiers signing up in 1917 reached such a low that people who had not voluntarily been written up were more or less coerced to join. However, it doesn’t change the fact that there was no salient reason behind the war- no idea for what they were fighting for. This adds to the idea of insensibility in the poem, to the sense of righteous, barely-contained anger that colors Owen’s words. There is nothing, according to Owen, that could be worth the death that they have witnessed, but to not even know for what they were fighting for is the ultimate insult to the memories of the dead.
Even today, scholars are not quite sure what the reasoning – the one true reason – for World War I was. It has largely been assumed that there was a multitude of reasons, not just the fact that Prince Ferdinand was assassinated by the Black Hand Gang; the most cynical among them believe, simply, that a war was just on the cards. From the way that ‘Insensibility’ speaks about the war, the reader can very easily believe this view.
Another thing to note is the unnatural nature of those innocuous lines:
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling
The soldiers have become so immune to the fear of death that to die no longer scares them. It is perhaps the most human impulse to want to survive – however, in this poem, Owen gently subverts the idea by showing a snapshot of soldiers that almost want to die, to get away from the misery that besets them every waking moment of their lives. Furthermore, the reference to their ‘shilling’ shows that the soldiers doubt why they even joined up in the first place – the shilling was their symbolism of servitude to the King. To take up the shilling was a symbolic laying-down-of-life for the British Empire. It is no doubt that by 1917, quite a large amount of soldiers regretted their nationalism and wished they’d never at all taken up this shilling.
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood forever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
The third category of happy men is ‘those who lose imagination’. Imagination has normally been used in poems – not merely war poems, but poems in general, to symbolize hope. To have imagination is to have freedom, however Owen, in a poem of subversions, takes the idea of imagination and turns it on its head. To have imagination in warfare is a burden – it leads the soldier down unnecessary pathways, and leaves him miserable. There is no good thing, according to Owen, that can come from having imagination in the war.
Also note, once more, the machinery view of the British soldier. ‘They have enough to carry with ammunition. / Their spirit drags no pack’. The idea of a beast of burden, loaded down under ammunition, is no doubt one of Owen’s canniest use of languages – he paints a picture of a soldier bent double underneath his pack, not merely physically, but spiritually, mentally, as well; the soldier, once a soldier, cannot stop being a soldier, can never leave war behind. For Owen, this is perhaps the ultimate thing that soldiers have sacrificed: their freedom and autonomy as people to become a part of the faceless British Army, an Army that, in the end, neither cared for them nor cared that they were injured or dying or miserable.
Following on from those lines, Owen states the situation of the men at the moment:
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood forever
Once more, it emphasizes the huge amounts of loss that the soldiers must have seen – their eyes have become permanently adjusted to death and to blood, leading them further and further away from humanity, and highlighting, once more, the difference in the way of thinking between a soldier and a civilian. These lines are meant to shock the reader, but not in such a way as to seem out of place – rather, Owen’s intent is to highlight the commonplaceness of the idea, that the soldiers are so used to blood and death that they have become immune to it, that they no longer fear because they have become used to the terror that surrounds them at every moment of the day. The implication is that this is a coping mechanism – an acquired talent that allows them to laugh even when they are among their dying comrades.
However, the judgement of this is left up to the reader. Owen does not judge the soldiers. He states them the way that they are, and then leaves it up to the reader to see how warped they have become by the war, how warped it has left them, and ultimately, how this is the fault of the British leaders and their complete disregard for the soldiers.
Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.
In an unusual twist for Owen, the fourth stanza takes us to ‘home’ – to England. He writes that there are very few soldiers happier than those who are at home:
with not a notion
how somewhere, every dawn, some men attack
Once more, the use of the language and terminology here makes the war something commonplace: something that the soldiers are so used to that it has become routine – however, for the reader, this perhaps makes it even more shocking.
Owen juxtaposes the content soldiers – the ones awaiting the send-off, having bought into the idea that Rupert Brook and the propaganda posters sold about fighting in the army – with the current soldiers in the warfare. The stunning contrast between the two images provides the reader with a dual view of the war – one from the point of view of someone already in it, one from the point of view of someone who has no idea what is awaiting him – and it is hard to say which comments the most on the other. For example, note the difference between the lad singing along the march, and the soldiers who ‘march taciturn’, and do not feel like singing. The phrase ‘huger night’ implies hungry darkness, swallowing all that it comes across.
We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.
The penultimate category moves to a subset of soldiers whom Owen has written about before: the soldier dying in No Man’s Land, the soldier dead, who ‘alive, he is not vital overmuch; dying, not mortal overmuch;’. Once more, Owen throws away any attempt to show meaning in the death of the soldier; he reduces him to machinery, the same way the British army reduced him to machinery, and thus his death is even more tragic, because it has no meaning behind it. Dead, he cannot tell what was the point of fighting – he cannot think of a reason for fighting.
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones;
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
And in the last stanza, Owen moves on to curse men – the men who have never joined up to fight, the men who have sent others to fight, influenced younger men to fight, without going themselves; who ‘by choice they made themselves immune / to pity and whatever moans in man’. The way that Owen writes about these men now is so angry, so stunningly vicious, that it somehow manages to reduce them to something subhuman, despite the fact that it is only a stanza long.
Owen curses them for not showing pity, for not having enough humanity to see that their actions were causing the death of thousands. It is here, in the last stanza, that Owen draws the line: the other men are insensible to death and suffering, they have seen altogether too much of it. These men, on the other hand, are monstrous, stony, and insensible to any form of feeling whatsoever, for no reason.
My own dearest Mother,
Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. 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 & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communiqué; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter! Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open. The Colonel sent round this message the next day: ‘I was filled with admiration at the conduct of the Battalion under the heavy shell-fire…. The leadership of officers was excellent, and the conduct of the men beyond praise.’ The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railwav embankment. 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! I passed most of the following days in a railway Cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy., 2/Lt. Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest be a 9 days’ Rest. I think that the terribly long time we stayed unrelieved was unavoidable; yet it makes us feel bitterly towards those in England who might relieve us, and will not.
We are now doing what is called a Rest, but we rise at 6.15 and work without break until bout 10p.m. for there is always a Pow- Wow for officers after dinner. And if I have not written yesterday, it is because I must have kept hundreds of letters uncensored, and enquiries about Missing Men unanswered
— excerpt from a letter to Susan Owen, written on 25 April, 1917.