Saturday, 9 August 2014

Louise E. Rule Writes About Wilfred Owen - War Poet and Soldier of World War I

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC 
(18th March 1893 - 4th November 1918)

Wilfred Owen

There is much written about the war poet, Wilfred Owen, all of it relevant to a man that died just one week, almost to the hour, before the end of Word War One - The Great War, the war to end all wars.

He was born on 18th March 1893, near Oswestry in Shropshire, to Thomas and Harriet Susan Owen. He was the eldest of four children.

It was during a holiday in Cheshire that Wilfred Owen discovered his vocation, around 1903/4

Wilfred Owen was twenty-two years-old when he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles Officers' Training Corps. He trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex for seven months. He was commissioned on 4th June 1916, as a second Lieutenant (on probation) in the Manchester Regiment. 

While on active service he suffered a number of traumatic experiences, one being that he fell into a shell hole suffering concussion. Another time he was blown into the air by a trench mortar, and because of this event, he spent several days lying on an embankment in Savy Wood. He was later diagnosed as suffering from shell shock, or neurasthenia, as it was then referred to. He found himself in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. it was while he was there that he met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow poet, who was to change Wilfred Owen's life.

At the end of August 1918, he returned to the front line. It was on 1st October of that year that he led units of the Second Manchesters to storm enemy points near Joncourt. His courage and leadership in this action led to him being awarded the Military Cross. The award was not published until 15th February 1919, and the citation didn't follow until 30th July 1919.

Quote: from The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31480. P. 9761

2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy.

Throughout he behaved most gallantly.

Wilfred Owen returned to active service in France, against the wishes of his friend, Siegfried Sassoon, in July 1918. Sassoon had been sent back to England after he had been shot in the head, purported to have been a 'friendly fire' incident. He remained on sick-leave for the remainder of the war.

On 4th November 1918, while crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal, Wilfred Owen was killed in action, occurring exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice, almost to the hour. Wilfred Owen was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother was informed of his death on Armistice Day. Wilfred Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery.

If it hadn't have been for Wilfred Owen's poetry I wonder how many of us would have been aware of him. He would probably have merged together with all the other brave service men without his name known. His poetry is both profound and gritty, not sparing the reader from the horrors of the war. 

One of his best known poems, Dulce et Decorum est, tells of the horror of being gassed in the trenches with nowhere to escape, the only saving grace was to put on the gas mask as quickly as possible. Even then there was no certainty that you were going to live through it.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring 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. 

The images that this conveys to the reader are ones of sheer panic, of despair, of a realisation that this could be their final hour. Imagine if you will, the first line of this poem. The warning! Imagine the men screaming to their comrades to put on their gas masks. Imagine them fumbling, trying to fit the clumsy helmets with hands shaking, hearts beating so fast, mouths dry with fear. Imagine...

Imagine also the yelling, the stumbling and the terror that these soldiers must have been feeling. We can't imagine it can we? We weren't there, but Wilfred Owen's words bring us as close as is possible to be so that we may have some kind of understanding of the horrors, all through is words.

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,

The perspicacity of these words impales the reader against the wall of the trenches, mouth agape, horror-stricken at what they see. [...white eyes writhing in his face,] and [...gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,]. The images are so explicit, so extraordinary as to be beyond the comprehension of one who was not there. All the way through this poem, Wilfred Owen grabs the reader by the collar, points at the soldiers, screaming at us to look, look at the horror, take it in, don't repeat it.. never repeat it. But we do... we do.

The final few lines of this poem are, to my mind, the most profound inasmuch as they are not only a warning, but also a revelation. It has, in past times, been seen as a path to Glory to fight in a war, to lay your life down for your country, to have your name on the local War Memorial. Wilfred Owen tells us that it is a lie, an old Lie.

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 Latin loosely translates as: It is sweet and right to die for your country. I have to wonder how sweet the fallen felt it to be. The famous words are taken from the title of an ode by Horace, (Quintus Horatius Flaccus - 08.01.65 BC - 27.11.08 BC), The Odes Book III - Dulce Et Decorum Est.

Children usually believe everything that an adult tells them. An adult in uniform has a certain power, a certain authority; their words are going to have the most influence on young ears. To be told that It is sweet and right to die for your country, can only conjure up visions of extreme valour, the getting of medals for battles fought, to be remembered and honoured as brave, as a hero, as a name on a war memorial... But what of those left behind? What do they feel? How do they cope when there is no grave for them to visit? A loved-one who is buried beneath the mud, blood and mire of a battlefield  in a foreign land, never to be found, must feel like the destruction of one's soul.

George Santayana, another poet and essayist that I much admire,
wrote in The Life of Reason. 1905; 

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

War, it would appear by the evidence all around the world, is a constant, a constant from which we fail to break free. For whatever reason these wars are being fought, they always come with a heavy price, the price of a life, many lives. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, sons, and daughters, the list is endless, families ruined, torn apart because of war.

The Armistice was signed at 05:00 and came into effect six hours later, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918. It was signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front. This we now call Remembrance Day, a day when we all take the time to remember all those who have lost their lives to keep ours free.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

(Middle verse of Ode of Remembrance
taken from Laurence Binyon's poem For The Fallen.)

Picture from the British Legion website

All other images are from Wikipedia

Louise E. Rule is author of Future Confronted
You can find Louise on Facebook and Twitter
And on her blog here
And on Goodreads


  1. Such powerful words from such a brave man. Thank you Louise. God grant them rest.

    1. I agree Rob, they are powerful words, written from the heart from a very brave man.

  2. Such a beautiful post Louise, I am moved to tears by your analysis of this great man's deeds and writings. I hope that he will always be remembered for his gallantry and his poetry - for he represents all those brave men and boys who fought in The Great War.

    1. Thank you Paula. I studied Wilfred Owen at university, and was completely in awe of his works and his bravery.