Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) is widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest war poets. Writing from the perspective of his intense personal experience of the front line, his poems, including ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, bring to life the physical and mental trauma of combat. Owen’s aim was to tell the truth about what he called ‘the pity of War’.
Born into a middle-class family in 1893 near Oswestry, Shropshire, Owen was the eldest of three. His father, Tom Owen, was a railway clerk and his mother, Susan, was from a fervently religious family.
In 1915, Owen enlisted in the army and in December 1916 was sent to France, joining the 2nd Manchester Regiment on the Somme. Within two weeks of his arrival he was commanding a platoon on the front line. In the midst of heavy gunfire, he waded for miles through trenches two feet deep in water with the constant threat of gas attacks. The brutal reality of war had a profound effect on him, as he recounted in letters to his mother. His poems ‘The Sentry’ and ‘Exposure’ record specific ordeals of this time.
In April, after being blown into the air by a shell, Owen spent several days sheltering in a hole near the corpse of a fellow officer, and was shortly after diagnosed with shell shock. In June 1917 he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, where he spent four months under the care of the renowned doctor, Captain Arthur Brock. Here Owen wrote many poems and became editor of the Hospital magazine, Hydra. He also met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon who gave him crucial support and encouragement in a literary friendship which transformed Owen’s life.
Through Sassoon, Owen met some key literary figures of the time including Robert Graves, Robert Ross and H G Wells. Many of the members of this literary circle were gay, including Ross and Sassoon. It is now recognised that Owen himself was also gay, and his writing incorporates many homoerotic elements.
During the spring of 1918, while back with the Manchester Regiment in Yorkshire, Owen wrote or revised many of his most famous poems, including ‘Strange Meeting’, ‘Exposure’ and ‘Futility’. By now he had consolidated his use of ‘pararhymes’, a technique which contributed to the effect of solemnity and discordancy: eyes/bless; moan/mourn (from ‘Strange Meeting’).
In September 1918, Owen returned to the front during the final stages of the war. He fought a fierce battle and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. He was killed, at the age of 25, while leading his men across the Sambre and Oise Canal near Ors, on 4 November – just one week before the Armistice was declared.
Virtually unknown as a poet in his lifetime, most of Owen’s poems were published after his death. Aware that his work could do nothing to help his own generation, he succeeded in warning the next, his poetic legacy having a major impact on attitudes to war.