There is no definitive marker on the rate of suicides that happened immediately after or during the First World War. Soldiers who committed suicide or self-inflected wounds (S.I.W.) due to horrific conditions, or to a fractured mental state, were considered to be the worst of the lowly worst and were usually buried without the honors afforded to soldiers who’d been killed in the line of duty. Investigations into the suicides of French soldiers during the First World War netted a total of over 5000 from France alone. As for England, the fact that suicide – or self-inflicted wounds – were one of the army’s biggest problems speaks for itself.
S.I.W. Wilfred Owen“I will to the King, And offer him consolation in his trouble, For that man there has set his teeth to die, And being one that hates obedience, Discipline, and orderliness of life, I cannot mourn him.” W. B. Yeats.Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the ladHe’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace,—Was proud to see him going, aye, and glad.Perhaps his Mother whimpered how she’d fretUntil he got a nice, safe wound to nurse.Sisters would wish girls too could shoot, charge, curse, . . .Brothers—would send his favourite cigarette,Each week, month after month, they wrote the same,Thinking him sheltered in some Y. M. Hut,Where once an hour a bullet missed its aimAnd misses teased the hunger of his brain.His eyes grew old with wincing, and his handReckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sandFrom the best sandbags after years of rain.But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheldfor torture of lying machinally shelled,At the pleasure of his world’s Powers who’d run amok.He’d seen men shoot their hands, on night patrol,Their people never knew. Yet they were vile.“Death sooner than dishonor, that’s the style!”So Father said.One dawn, our wire patrolCarried him. This time, Death had not missed.We could do nothing, but wipe his bleeding cough.Could it be accident?—Rifles go off . . .Not sniped? No. (Later they found the English ball.)It was the reasoned crisis of his soul.Against the fires that would not burn him wholeBut kept him for death’s perjury and scoffAnd life’s half-promising, and both their riling.With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed.And truthfully wrote the Mother “Tim died smiling.”
In his short, succinct poem Suicide in the Trenches, Sassoon writes scathingly:
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Owen, following in his footsteps, wrote the much longer, and much more brutal, S.I.W., partially inspired by Sassoon’s The Hero, Stand-to: Good Friday Morning, and Suicide in the Trenches.
S.I.W. stands for self-inflicted wound. Soldiers who had grown too traumatized by war, or in general wanted to be back home with their loved ones, took to hoping for what were known as ‘blighty wounds’ – injuries that would send them back home to England without a hope of convalescing. The more desperate of the soldiers took to shooting off their own fingers, in the hopes that they would be sent home and never called up to active duty again; however, the British Army soon caught wind of this scheme, and soldiers who were thought to have SIWs were treated like garbage. Overall, approximately 4000 soldiers were found guilty of SIWs and sentenced to long prison stays.
Discover more Wilfred Owen poems.
It was not only the pressures of the country that led soldiers to sign up for the First World War. Families, especially noble families, would pressure their sons to sign up for the army. As Owen writes in S.I.W., ‘Father would sooner see him dead than in disgrace’. The subtle reference to the parents – the father, chuffed with pride for his son’s decision, the sisters who wish ‘girls too could shoot’, and the mother who whimpers and flutters to the neighbors about how she’d fret for him until he got a ‘nice safe wound’, the brothers who’d send his favourite cigarettes – serves to build a sense of entrapment. The soldier isn’t safe even from his own family; he has to sign up for the army, and he has to ‘show the Hun a brave man’s face’.
However, the families were wholly unaware of the true reality of the war. Lice and bombs and the ‘misses’ that ‘teased the hunger of his brain’, and the daily life in the trenches:
But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheld
For torture of lying machinally shelled,
At the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok.
Wilfred Owen‘s brutal honesty offers snapshots of the poor soldier’s life. The reader cannot help but feel sorry for him, this poor ‘untapped wretch’, who is trapped on both sides – by the Germans who wish to kill him, and the family who would sooner die before dishonor.
Finally, the soldier has had enough and commits suicide. ‘This time, Death had not missed’, writes Owen, and goes on to state that later they found the ‘English ball’ – one of the ways of determining the difference between genuine injuries and self-inflicted wounds was to isolate the cause of the damaging bullet. As it was suicide, the soldier had been struck with an English ball, and it is written in such a throwaway manner that it is not immediately clear to the reader what has happened. It is only in the next stanza, where Owen draws from Milton, and paints a picture of the hell that the soldier has been going through, that the Reader understands the true horror of what has happened.
Although the idea of SIWs was considered to be the lowest form of cowardice, Owen cleverly never states what the idea of the poem is about until nearly halfway through, after the reader has been forced to come to terms with the horrific things that the soldier has lived with, thus making his self-inflicted wound a strange form of bravery.
In the final stanza, the idea of death is treated almost with reverence.
With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed,
And truthfully wrote the Mother, ‘Tim died smiling’.
The SIW that killed Tim is looked upon, almost, as a kind of blessing – Tim did not die in agony, Tim did not die in pain, he died smiling. It is one of Owen’s most shocking poems, but not for the usual reasons that Owen’s claim to fame demands. In it, the British public would have come face to face with the inescapable trauma of warfare, and the pressures heaped upon the soldiers.
S.I.W. was drafted at Craiglockhart in September 1917 and revised at Ripon in May 1918.