Wilfred Owen: Anthem for a Doomed Poet

One hundred years ago today, Wilfred Owen, a Lieutenant in the 2nd Manchesters – and an as-yet unknown poet – fell to German guns in the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal in the Second Battle of the Sambre. Here’s a brief account of the final three years of his life, in which he joined the army, suffered wounds and shell shock, found his poetic voice in a hospital, and then perished almost exactly a week before the Armistice took hold and the guns went silent. The story will be told primarily in Owen’s own words, taken from his poems and Collected Letters (Oxford University Press, 1967), and illustrated with stereoviews depicting some of the places and situations that he discusses. The letters will be compressed for brevity’s sake, and as ever, an anaglyph gallery will be positioned at bottom.

Troops marching through Oise, near the canal where Wilfred Owen died. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.
Troops marching through Oise, near the canal where Owen died. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Joining Up

Having always been a sensitive and scholarly boy, with a literary mind – by age 10, he wanted to be a poet, and was enamored of the Romantics, particularly Keats – Wilfred Owen was an unlikely candidate for a military life. Indeed, at the outbreak of the war, Owen was living in France, working as a tutor, and immersing himself in the culture of the land – and he was in no rush to join up. He planned a trip to Havre, which was cancelled suddenly as passage was denied. When it became apparent that his options were narrowing, he wrote to his mother (henceforth Susan or SO):

Friday – I kept back these extraordinary announcements under a presentiment that my Voyage would not come off—and, indeed, at six o’clock this evening I learnt that it can’t be done. Principal reason stated—my English Nationality. The Voyage to Havre might be managed but not a Return. But, a fortnight next Saturday, I shall most undoubtedly be able to sail to Havre, & perhaps cross to Newhaven, free of charge, for I shall be returning to join the ArmyAddendum to letter to SO, postmarked Bordeaux, originally dated Wednesday 18 August 1915

It would be another two months before he officially joined up:

In the middle of this letter I was called to lunch; and then went to ‘swear in’. This time it is done: I am the British Army! Three of us had to read the Oath together; the others were horribly nervous! and read the wrong Paragraph until the Captain stopped them! ‘Kiss the Book!’ says Captain. One gives it a tender little kiss; the other a loud smacking one! … After that we had to be inoculated for Typhoid. And that is why I am in bed since four o’clock! The delightfully kind, confidence-inspiring doctor gave us full instructions. There were scores of Tommies taking the ordeal before me, and believe me some were as nervous as only fine, healthy animals can be before doctors. One fainted before his turn came, merely as a result of the Doctor’s description of possible symptoms! … We have sick leave until Monday morning. The hours are 9:30 to 4! Jolly reasonable! … The Poetry Bookshop is about 7 mins. walk! There is a Reading this very night!Letter to SO, postmarked Les Lilas, 54 Tavistock Square, W. C., dated 21 October 1915

Clearly, Wilfred Owen is still a bit naive as to what he’s signed up for – living in a French boarding house on the square in which Dickens resided whilst writing Bleak House, among other works, and amusing himself with evening poetry readings. Soon, however, he would be shipped off to training camp, and his attitude would change:

I was put on Guard Duty from 9 a.m. yesterday to 9 a.m. today. Miserable time: not allowed to take off packs or boots during 24 hrs. I was Sentry from 11 to 1 and 5 to 7 etc. a. and p.m. I was with fellows that I don’t like—chumps all of them. We got enough to eat; and I made toast on my Bayonet. There was not much Challenging to do. I am one of the orderlies again tomorrow. Now that the novelty is wearing off, this Camping is beginning to get troublesome. I had a card from Stanley Webb today. I am not off this weke end. How is everybody? You W.E.O. Letter to SO, postmarked “From Cadet W.E.S. Owen, 4756/Hut 6a, Artists’ Reg’t C. Coy./Hare Hall Camp Romford Essex”, dated 28 November 1915.

Very likely a French version of the "chumps" that Wilfred Owen so despised throughout his early months in the army. As he abhorred course language, excessive alcohol use, and so on, he found few peers early on in his time in the Army, as noted time and time again in his letters. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.
Very likely a French version of the “chumps” that Owen so despised throughout his early months in the army. As he abhorred course language, excessive alcohol use, and so on, he found few peers early on in his time in the Army, as noted time and time again in his letters. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Wilfred Owen would be training in various capacities – almost always seemingly annoying to him – until he was finally commissioned into the Manchester Regiment in June 1916. But after being denied a position in the Flying Corps, it was more training, as the 5th Manchesters were currently a reserve unit. Owen became an expert marksman, impressing his superiors, and on the 29th of December, he boarded a train to a shipyard – it appeared he was going abroad. In fact, he was to travel to France on New Year’s Day, 1917 – to join the 2nd Manchesters at the front.

The Somme

From arrival in France, it took three days to arrive at Owen’s first destination. The journey wasn’t pleasant, and the other soldiers were even more “chump-like” than his fellow cadets in Britain:

My own dear Mother, I have joined the Regiment, who are just at the end of six weeks’ rest. I will not describe the awful vicissitudes of the journey here … Since I set foot on the Calais quays I have not had dry feet … After those two days, we were let down, gently, into the real thing, Mud. It has penetrated now into that Sanctuary my sleeping bag, and that holy of holies my pyjamas. For I sleep on a stone floor and the servant squashed mud on all my belongings; I suppose by way of baptism. We are 3 officers in this ‘Room’, the rest of the house is occupied by servants and the band; the roughest set of knaves I have ever been herded with. Even now their vile language is shaking the flimsy door between the rooms.Letter to SO, 4 January 1917. From this point, Owen may only note that he is sending his letters from the 2nd Manchester, so as not to divulge locations in the event of intercepted mail.

It wasn’t long before the young officer was thrown into the action, as the Battle of the Somme was already well underway – the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line was not far off – and Owen found himself in the abandoned village of Bertrancourt:

My own dear Mother, I have just received your long-looked-for letter. It seems wrong that even your dear handwriting should come into such a Gehenna as this. There is a terrific Strafe on. Our artillery are doing a 48 hours bombardment … When we arrived at this deserted Village last night, there had been no billets prepared for the Battalion … for my part I … discovered a fine little hut, with a chair in it! A four-legged chair! The Roof is waterproof, and there is a Stove. There is only one slight disadvantage: there is a Howitzer just 70 or 80 yards away, firing over the top every minute or so.Letter to SO, 9 January 1917.

The Somme was often like that – every time one side advanced, it would take advantage of whatever features it had captured, down to abandoned huts, destroyed farmhouses, and so on.

A farm at the Somme, rather more devastated than the one Wilfred Owen stayed at on 9th January. From my collection.
A farm at the Somme, rather more devastated than the one Owen stayed at on 9th January. From my collection.

A week later, Wilfred Owen would finally be truly battle-tested, capturing his first dugout:

I am sorry you have had about 5 days letterless … I can see no reason for deceiving you about these last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it … I held an advanced post, that is, a ‘dug-out’ in the middle of No Man’s Land … we had a march of 3 miles over shelled road then nearly 3 along a flooded trench. After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top. It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4, and 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water. Men have been known to drown in them. Many stuck in the mud & only got on by leaving their waders, equipment, and in some cases their clothes … High explosives were dropping all around out, and machine guns spluttered every few minutes … we reached the dug-out, and relieved the wretches therein.Letter to SO, 16 January 1917.

And a few days later, had his first experience with something that would be one of the focal points of his most well-known poem, Dulce et Decorum Est:

I went on ahead to scout—foolishly alone—and when, half a mile away from the party, got overtaken by

G  A  S

It was only tear-gas from a shell, and I got safely back (to the party) in my helmet, with nothing more than a severe fright! And a few tears, some natural, some unnatural … They want to call No Man’s Land ‘England’ because we keep supremacy there. It is like the eternal place of gnashing teeth ; the Slough of Despond could be contained in one of its crater-holes; the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it—to find the way to Babylon the Fallen … It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer … No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness … To call it ‘England’! I would as soon call my House (!) Krupp Villa, or my child Chlorina-Phosgena.Letter to SO, 19 January 1917.

Soldiers in a trench prepared for a gas attack, as Wilfred Owen would come to be - imagery such as this pops up in many of his poems, most notably in "Dulce et Decorum Est". Gas warfare was an everyday hazard during the Great War. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.
Soldiers in a trench prepared for a gas attack, as Owen would come to be – imagery such as this pops up in many of his poems, most notably in “Dulce et Decorum Est”. Gas warfare was an everyday hazard during the Great War. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Besides the intermittent bombardments, Howitzer fire, and gas attacks, life on the front was quite mundane – even officers such as Owen were expected to help dig and reinforce the trenches, a chore he found terribly boring – and complained about to his mother with almost as much frequency as his constant requests for socks, cigarettes, chocolates, and volumes of poetry. It is fairly safe to say that this last item probably stood out among officers at the Somme front at that time. In any case, Wilfred Owen hated digging trenches.

British soldiers digging second-line trenches, hence their relaxed poses. Wilfred Owen was on the front line. From my collection.
British soldiers digging second-line trenches, hence their relaxed poses. Owen was on the front line. From my collection.

Then, on March 14th, the monotony was broken, as it were, by a fall. In a letter which does not survive, but which was quoted by Edmund Blunden whilst writing his memoirs, Owen wrote from Le Quesnoy-en-Santerre:

Last night I was going round through pitch darkness to see a man in a dangerous state of exhaustion. I fell into a kind of well, only about 15 ft., but I caught the back of my head on the way down. The doctors (not in consultation!) say I have a slight concussion. Of course I have a vile headache, but I don’t feel at all fuddled.

But the next his mother heard from him, the situation had changed:

My dearest Mother, I am in a hospital bed, (for the first time in life.) After falling into that hole (which I believe was a shell-hole in a floor, laying open a deep cellar) I felt nothing more than a headache, for 3 days; and I went up to the front in the usual way—or nearly the usual way, for I felt to weak to wrestle with the mud, and sneaked along the top, snapping my fingers at a clumsy sniper. When I got back I developed a high fever, vomited strenuously, and long, and was seized with muscular pains. The night before last I was sent to a shanty a bit further back, & yesterday motored on to this Field Hospital, called Casualty Clearing Station 13. It is nowhere in particular that I know, but I may be evacuatd to Amiens, if my case lasts long enough. Letter to SO, 18 March 1917.

A field hospital in France, much like the one Wilfred Owen mentions in the above letter, photographed by A. O. Fasser, an American surgeon who came over to give aid during the Great War. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection,
A field hospital in France, much like the one Owen mentions in the above letter, photographed by A. O. Fasser, an American surgeon who came over to give aid during the Great War. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection,

During the stay of a couple of weeks in Amiens, Owen became increasingly bored, as reflected in his musings about the terrible people in the hospital, a sudden desire to become a pig farmer (!), sketches of bungalows he could imagine himself living in, and so forth, that he would constantly send off to his mother, brothers, sisters – really, anybody whose address he had committed to memory. Around this time, he was having conflicting thoughts – he was beginning to adapt to life at the front, while meanwhile, he was imagining himself in easier roles, such as a hospital assistant:

The man in the next bed told me this. We have two cases, pilot & observer, who are terribly smashed. They will both recover, but the pilot has both arms broken, abdominal injuries, both eyes contused, nose cut, teeth knocked in, and skull fractured. It makes me ashamed to be here. But I help to look after him at night. The sister has a wonderful way with him. I like her very much. Constitutionally I am better able to do Service in a hospital than in the trenches. But I suppose we all think that. -Letter to SO, 30 March 1917.

Another of A. O. Fasser's photographs, of three injured soldiers recovering in a field hospital. Wilfred Owen clearly felt both inadequate (in not having sustained as serious an injury as most of the dozen or so men in that hospital at the time), but also superior to the wounded men - in that he did not feel that they were worth conversing with. His attitudes would soon change. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.
Another of A. O. Fasser’s photographs, of three injured soldiers recovering in a field hospital. Owen clearly felt both inadequate (in not having sustained as serious an injury as most of the dozen or so men in that hospital at the time), but also superior to the wounded men – in that he did not feel that they were worth conversing with. His attitudes would soon change. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

In direct contradiction to the sentiment from the 30th March letter, however, his following letter is very telling as to his evolving (or, perhaps, devolving) mental state:

Dearest Mother, Know that I have cut my forefinger with a tin of Lobster, and that is why I write shaky. I have just been 4 days caravanning from the CCS, & have just found our H.Q. Journeying over the new ground has been most frightfully interesting. The Batt. has just done something great which will find its way to the Communiqué. I am going up to join them in an hour’s time. They have lost one officer & many are wounded, Haydon among them. I shall no doubt be in time for the Counter Attack. I have bought an automatic pistol in town (from which I sent a P.P.C.) By the time you read this we’ll be out of the line again. … Tonight will be over . . . . My long rest has shaken my nerve. But after all I hate old age, and there is only one way to avoid it!Letter to SO, 4 April 1917.

When Wilfred Owen returned to the front, with a shaky hand and admittedly shaky nerves, he arrived to find his commanding officer dead, many of the men badly wounded, and morale terribly low. His orders were to find out the position and strength of the enemy near the trench he was defending – and that meant giving away his position. After casually alerting the enemy of the Manchesters’ presence in the trench, two heavy machine guns bore down on the area. Owen now knew that he was facing a tougher enemy, with little recourse – so he and his men held on, as low as possible, for four days and nights, until it was safe to retreat. In the midst of this, the man standing next to him took a bullet through the bicep – and Wilfred Owen wrote home with a detached tone that he was envious of the man.

A typical trench at the Somme, presumably much like the one Wilfred Wilfred Owen was defending in early April. From my collection.
A typical trench at the Somme, presumably much like the one Wilfred Owen was defending in early April. From my collection.

On 9th April, Owen posted a half-completed letter to his brother Colin – whom he had previously written to his mother “would not last three weeks in this sector of Hades” – describing in impersonal, almost robotic detail the killing power of the Bosch machine gun. After this, no word reached any of Owen’s family members until the 25th, when the following letter – reproduced below in its entirety – was posted to Susan:

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 such heavy shellfire . . . 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 railway 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 will 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 about 10 p.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 [remainder missing]Letter to SO, 25 April 1917, from “A. Coy., My Cellar”

But Wilfred Owen hadn’t told the whole story. During the barrage, over 30 men under Owen’s command had died. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The “Rest” Owen mentions above quickly turned into one of the most transformative experiences of his life – he was examined by a doctor before being returned to the front, but the doctor found explicit signs that he was suffering from what at the time was known as Neurasthenia, but was commonly referred to as shell shock. The reason would become clear in a later letter to his sister, again reflecting a detached tone:

You must not entertain the least concern about me because I am here. I certainly was shaky when I first arrived. But today Dr. Browne was hammering at my knees without any response whatever. (At first I used to execute the High Kick whenever he touched them) i.e. Reflex Actions quite normal. You know it was not the Bosche that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call 2/Lt. Gaukroger), who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand. I hope you don’t! – Letter to Mary Owen, 10 May 1917.

Corpses of men killed by trench bombardment - but not in the sort of close quarters that Wilfred Owen had shared with what remained of "Cock Robin". Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.
Corpses of men killed by trench bombardment – but not in the sort of close quarters that Owen had shared with what remained of “Cock Robin”. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Wilfred Owen had lain in shock, for days, without food nor drink, amidst the fragmented corpse of his friend. This would be a shock to anybody. And while Owen was not quite the naive, sensitive lad who’d signed up with the Artists’ Rifles, he was not dulled enough to the horrors of war not to be shaken to his core by this experience. He shifted hospitals a couple of times, before finally arriving at Craiglockhart Hydropathic Hospital in Edinburgh.

Craiglockhart, Return to the Front, and Death

It was at Craiglockhart that Wilfred Owen came into his own as a poet. But first, there was some other business to attend. He continued to write letters rather constantly, which is why such a rich archive of his thoughts during this time period exists. He experimented with poetry, and sent drafts of many poems – most of which only exist as uncompleted fragments in a 1983 collection, “The Complete Poems and Fragments” edited by John Stallworthy – to his family members and friends.

Notably, he was first published in Craiglockhart’s fortnightly literary magazine, The Hydra, which he also promptly took over editing on the advice of his doctor. He not only edited the journal, but anonymously wrote articles, editorials, and commentaries. Although during this period he occasionally yearned for the action of the front, he was content to delve into poetry, further exploring the poets of his youth, whilst biting into newer poets, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, of whose work he was immediately enamored. But it was the arrival of a notable “patient” at the hospital that really gave Wilfred Owen the spark to create his greatest works.

In late July, Siegfried Sassoon arrived, already a published poet, and somewhat notoriously brave (there’s an oft-repeated tale that he once scared off 60 German soldiers by recklessly throwing grenades, singlehandedly capturing a machine gun nest – and then forgot about it entirely, pulling out a book of poems and reading at the nest, and confounding his superiors who didn’t know whether he was alive or dead). Sassoon was a bit of a sore spot for the British government at the moment; he’d published a statement that was read in front of the House of Commons condemning the war. Thus, he’d been placed in Craiglockhart to “recuperate” – in other words, to stay out of trouble. But in August, Owen and Sassoon would cross paths, and immediately take to one another:

At last I have an event worth a letter. I have beknown myself to Siegfried Sassoon. Went in to him last night (my second call). The first visit was one morning last week. The sun blazed into his room making his purple dressing suit of a brilliance—almost matching my sonnet! He is very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d (how’s that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom. Last night when I went in he was struggling to read a letter from Wells; whose handwriting is not only a slurred suggestion of works, but in a dim pink ink! Wells talks of coming up here to see him and his doctor; not about Sassoon’s state of health, but about God the Invisible King. … Next day – … So the last thing he said was ‘Sweat your guts out writing poetry!’  ‘Eh?’ says I. ‘Sweat your guts out, I say!’ He also warned me against early publishing: but recommended Martin Secker for a small volume of 10 or 20 poems. [Here Owen actually inquires about the addressee of his letter briefly, before returning to Sassoon.] Sassoon quite admires Thos. Hardy more than anybody living. I don’t think much of what I’ve read. Quite potatoey after the meaty Morals. You’ll have had enough of Sassoon, what? Just one more tit-bit. Wells said in his last letter: hope you will soon ‘devote yourself to the real business of your life, which is poetry only by the way.’ Poor Wells! We made some fancy guesses as to what he meant:—Tract-writing? stump-oratory? politics? what? Cheero! I’m well enough by day, and generally so by night. A better mode of life than this present I could not practically manage.Letter to Leslie Gunston, 22 August, 1917.

Clearly, Wilfred Owen was enamored with Siegfried Sassoon from the get-go. Over the next couple of days, he wrote letters to Susan, to his father, Tom, to his sister Mary, and quite possibly to others raving of Sassoon’s virtues. The two became fast friends, albeit in a relationship marked by an imbalanced power dynamic – the younger Owen practically worshiped Sassoon, so much so that he’d write alternate drafts of some of his earliest (and one of his best known) war poems, and have Sassoon choose versions, wordings, even titles, as he did in the case of what was originally titled “Anthem to Dead Youth”, and then “Anthem for Dead Youth”, and finally the poem we all know today:

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 goodbyes.
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.

Wilfred Owen, written at Craiglockhart in September-October 1917, with the assistance of Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon would also introduce Owen to a great number of prominent figures in the literary circles of the era, including Robbie Ross and Robert Graves. It is through the latter that we most extensively know that Wilfred Owen was homosexual (or, possibly, bisexual); although other sources confirmed it, Owen’s brother Harold posthumously destroyed his diary, and severely redacted and/or destroyed many of his letters and some of his poems. Sadly, these are almost certainly entirely lost to history, as Harold’s widow donated everything that remained to Oxford University in the 1970s.

In any case, Sassoon had a tremendous impact on Owen’s writing style, pushing him away from the romanticism which had consumed his youth, into an area of stark realism – writing from experience. And much of Owen’s recent experience was rough and gritty and nasty, to say the least.

Things Wilfred Owen would be quite familiar with - gas masks, grenades, rifles, flamethrowers, sandbags, trenches... Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.
Things Wilfred Owen would be quite familiar with – gas masks, grenades, rifles, flamethrowers, sandbags, trenches… Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Wilfred Owen learned much from Sassoon, but he refused to take Sassoon’s biggest piece of advice – that under no circumstances should he seek to return to the front. Sassoon was himself a “danger junkie”; he reveled in taking almost absurd risks, which elevated him to the rank of Captain before he left the service in 1919 after a friendly-fire shot to the head. But he recognized that Owen, while brave, was not cut out for the front – and should spend his talents elsewhere – specifically in the writing of poetry. Nevertheless, in November, Owen was judged fit for duty again, and moved back to the 5th Manchesters at Scarborough. From there, he wrote the following to Sassoon:

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice. The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo, which in the vulgar, means Lift Boy. I manage Accommodation, Food, and Service. I boss cooks, housemaids, charwomen, chamber-maids, mess orderlies—and drummers … I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, and should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday.Letter to Siegfried Sassoon, 27 November, 1917.

In December, Owen was promoted to Lieutenant, and Sassoon was sent back to the front, where he would remain until he was wounded by one of his own men. Owen, on the other hand, stayed on light duty until January 1918, when he learned that he would return to France.

Wilfred Owen continued serving in the trenches for another ten months. He was noted as being a brave and fair commander of men, although he had softened some to their language and bad habits, as depicted in his final letter to Susan, written on All Hallows’ Eve, in which the men are described no longer as “chumps”, but as beloved friends and comrades-at-arms:

Dear Mother,
   I will call the place from which I’m now writing ‘The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House’. I write on the first sheet of the writing pad which came in the parcel yesterday. Luckily the parcel was small, as it reached me just before we moved off to the line. My servant & I ate the chocolate in the cold middle of last night, crouched under a draughty Tamboo, roofed with planks. I husband the Malted Milk for tonight, & tomorrow night. The handkerchief & socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, & I have a slight cold!
   So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts. On my left the Coy. Commander snores on a bench: other officers repose on wire beds behind me. At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Coy. in The Old Days radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with the signaller, to whose left ear is glued the Receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth & a wheee of jokes.
   Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes into the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.
   It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly slimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells.
   There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.
   I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Ever Wilfred x

   —Letter to Susan Owen, 31 October, 1918

Four days later, and exactly 100 years ago today, Wilfred Owen would meet his fate in the Sambre-Oise Canal; accounts of the exact nature of his death vary, and none can be seen as reliable. It is certain that he was killed by German machine gun fire, but the exact circumstances are unclear. Owen might have faded into obscurity if not for the posthumous efforts by Sassoon to publish his works, and by his brother Harold to publish a biography & collection of letters – albeit heavily redacted to remove most traces of his brother’s homosexuality from his legacy. In Britain at the time, homosexuality was still seen as deviant, and was a criminal offense – in the not too distant past, Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for it, which led to his early demise.

But Wilfred Owen’s legacy lives on; he is currently second only to Shakespeare in terms of poets read by British pupils, and he’s widely read elsewhere as well, generally named amongst the greatest war poets of all time. On Remembrance Day 1985, Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, and twelve other Great War poets were commemorated in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey; the inscription on the stone was from Owen’s unpublished preface to what he had planned to be his first monograph had he lived to complete it: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

For someone who wrote so realistically about the horrors of war that his poetry still resonates with modern soldiers (and non-soldiers); who spent days laying amongst the fragmented body of a friend and comrade; who saw ugly mortality around every corner, and walked in the long shadow of death with every footstep; who convalesced amongst the wounded and the dying and the shell-shocked – for someone like this, Owen was able to conjure a remarkable amount of beauty and grace in his words.

Wilfred Owen is buried near where he fell, at Ors Communal Cemetery, with an inscription chosen by Susan Owen, who learned of her beloved son’s death on the very day – a week later – that the rest of Britain was celebrating the Armistice:


Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 18th March 1893 – 4th November 1918.


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