“The people of England needn’t hope. They must agitate.” (Wilfred Owen, letter to his mother)
It has been said that when the cannons are heard, the muses are silent. In a general sense that is true. The thunder of war drowns out the voice of the poet and the artist. The grim poetry of artillery shells, hand grenades and machine guns is far stronger than the weak voice of human beings protesting against the monstrous cannibalism that periodically disrupts the old equilibrium and threatens to destroy the conditions of civilized existence. However, to every rule there is an exception.
The First World War—that grotesque carnival of death and destruction that pushed Europe to the brink of barbarism—produced some of the most remarkable antiwar literature that has ever been written. From the German side we have the famous novel by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues), which was twice made into a notable film. From the French side we have Under Fire (Le Feu), the masterpiece of Henri Barbusse, who became a Communist. These immortal works of literature provide us with a graphic picture of the terrible reality of trench warfare from the standpoint of the ordinary soldier.
At the same time, Britain produced a whole generation of what became known as the War Poets. Of these the most outstanding was Wilfred Owen who died tragically in November 1918 only a few days before the war ended. In his poems the so-called Great War for Civilization is depicted in all its cruel savagery. His work provides an effective antidote to the avalanche of patriotic propaganda that found its reflection in the literary field in the kind of sentimental patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke.
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born on March 18, 1893, in Oswestry, on the border between Wales and England. He began writing poetry as a teenager, inspired by the great English lyric poets of the nineteenth century, especially Keats and Shelley (the latter was also greatly admired by Marx). Paradoxically, Owen’s character was utterly unsuited to the role of a soldier. As a person he was sensitive, shy, inoffensive, bookish, and introverted. He was also deeply religious, and even became lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden, near Reading, shortly before the war, teaching Bible classes and leading prayer meetings.
But great historical events produce remarkable changes in the psychology of both the masses and of individuals. It was the the First World War that transformed Wilfred Owen, both as a person and as a poet. When the war broke out he was working in France as a private tutor, in a place close to the Pyrenees. The bursts of shellfire and the stuttering of machine guns did not disturb the tranquil repose of those distant parts. To Owen the war seemed something remote that did not have any relevance to him. But as he scanned the columns of The Daily Mail which his mother sent him from England, he began to have an uneasy conscience. He returned to England in October 1915 and, in common with so many young men of his generation, he volunteered for the army.
As an educated person from the respectable lower middle classes, Owen was commissioned as an officer in the Manchester Regiment. He trained in England for over a year, enjoying the admiring stares of people as he walked along the street in his smart soldier’s uniform. The reality of war was still a closed book to this innocent young mind. In his earliest verses, written in 1914, we hear the voice of a naïve young man, yet to experience the horrors of war, whose brain is still intoxicated by the fumes of patriotism. On December 30, 1916, having completed his military training, Wilfred Owen sailed for France.
He arrived there full of boyish high spirits and patriotic fervor. But these illusions were very soon knocked out of his head by the cruel reality of a bloody war of attrition. Initially he was shocked by the uncouthness of the men under his command. But very soon he grew to respect and love them as brothers condemned to face the terrors of death together. One of his most powerful and moving poems is called Inspection. It is written in the first person singular, which adds to its power. As an officer, Owen had to inspect his men. In the course of one such inspection, he sees a stain in a soldier’s uniform and reprimands him for appearing on parade with dirty clothes. Only later does he find out that the stain was the man’s blood, and the theme of blood and sacrifice is brought to an intense climax at the end of the poem:
There are echoes of Owen’s religious upbringing: the blood of the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sins of the world. But here the lambs that are led to the slaughter are millions of young men, sacrificed on the altar of a cruel and pitiless God:
‘You! What d’you mean by this?’ I rapped.
‘You dare come on parade like this?’
‘Please, sir, it’s–’ ‘Old yer mouth,’ the sergeant snapped.
‘I takes ‘is name, sir?’ – ‘Please, and then dismiss.’
Some days ‘confined to camp’ he got,
For being ‘dirty on parade’.
He told me, afterwards, the damned spot
Was blood, his own. ‘Well, blood is dirt,’ I said.
‘Blood’s dirt,’ he laughed, looking away,
Far off to where his wound had bled
And almost merged for ever into clay.
‘The world is washing out its stains,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t like our cheeks so red:
Young blood’s its great objection.
But when we’re duly white-washed, being dead,
The race will bear Field-Marshal God’s inspection.’
Soon he was wading along trenches knee deep in filthy water, surrounded by the stench of rotting corpses. Within a week he had been transported to the front line in a cattle wagon and was sleeping 70 or 80 yards from a heavy gun which fired every minute or so. He witnessed the horrors of gas attacks. His company slept out in deep snow, plagued by bitter frost. By now he was beginning to understand the meaning of war. He wrote home: “The people of England needn’t hope. They must agitate.”
By the January 9, 1917, he had joined the 2nd Manchesters on the Somme—at Bertrancourt near Amiens. Here he took command of number 3 platoon, “A” Company. He wrote to his mother:
I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last four 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 three miles over shelled road, then nearly three 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, three, four, and five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water . . .
On January 16, 1917, Owen wrote again:
In the platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing. One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected. If I had kept him he would have lived, for servants don’t do Sentry Duty. I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs during the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I’m afraid, blinded.
Owen’s experience found its expression in the poem The Sentry, which was finally completed in France in September 1918, a few weeks before his death. The content of the poem is as follows:
Owen and his men have found an old German (“Boche”) dug-out, but they have been spotted by the Germans and subjected to constant bombardment. The men stand waist-high in stinking mud from which it is impossible to escape, and the place stinks. The dug-out is directly hit by an exploding shell (a “whizz-bang”), which blows the sentry off his feet. He falls down the steps into the mud. The soldiers expect to find a corpse but the sentry is still alive. He cries out that he is blind, but Owen tries to reassure him that if he can see just a faint light from the candle he holds to his eyes then he will, in time, recover his sight. The sentry tells him that he can see nothing. The man’s blinded eyes still haunt him in his dreams:
We’d found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime
Kept slush waist high, that rising hour by hour,
Choked up the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes of whizz-bangs, and the smell of men
Who’d lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses. . . .
There we herded from the blast
Of whizz-bangs, but one found our door at last.
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles.
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping
And splashing in the flood, deluging muck—
The sentry’s body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged him up, for killed, until he whined
“O sir, my eyes—I’m blind—I’m blind, I’m blind!”
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he’d get all right.
“I can’t,” he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids
Watch my dreams still; but I forgot him there
In posting next for duty, and sending a scout
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and floundering about
To other posts under the shrieking air.
Those other wretches, how they bled and spewed,
And one who would have drowned himself for good,—
I try not to remember these things now.
Let dread hark back for one word only: how
Half-listening to that sentry’s moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his broken teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath —
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
“I see your lights!” But ours had long died out.
The unimaginable horrors of the First World War were sufficient to shatter the nervous system of even the strongest men. One soldier recalled, “We went up into the front line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his body and face was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified but even more frightened of showing it.” This was an everyday experience.
Subjected to continuous bombardment day and night for weeks on end, exhausted, cold and wet, men’s minds were broken as well as bodies. Owen had suffered concussion when he fell into a shell hole. Then he was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, and spent several days lying in a field. As a result he was evacuated to Britain suffering from what became known as shellshock. Between 1914 and 1918, the British Army identified 80,000 men with what would now be defined as the symptoms of what we now call posttraumatic stress disorder.
Those who suffered from severe shell shock could not stand the thought of being on the front line any longer. Some of them deserted. Once caught, they received a court martial and, if sentenced to death, shot by a twelve-man firing squad. In World War I, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed for crimes such as desertion and cowardice.
The most devastating symptoms of shell shock included uncontrollable shaking, terrifying nightmares, and severe convulsions. But at the time, most shell shock victims were treated harshly and with little sympathy as their symptoms were not understood and they were seen as a sign of weakness. Those whose condition was so severe that they had to be sent back to Britain (known in soldier’s slang as “Blighty”) were often regarded with contempt as cowards and malingerers, faking mental illness to avoid fighting.
In his moving poem The Dead Beat, Owen describes the case of a shell-shocked soldier who lies prostrate on the ground and refuses to get up even when kicked and threatened with an officer’s revolver. The man is taken away by stretcher bearers who have no doubt he is faking illness in order to get home to “Blighty.” The whisky-sodden army doctor maintains the same opinion of the “scum,” even when the man has died of his supposedly fake disease.
He dropped—more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
Just blinked at my revolver, blearily;
—Didn’t appear to know a war was on,
Or see the blasted trench at which he stared.
“I’ll do ’em in,” he whined, “If this hand’s spared,
I’ll murder them, I will.”
A low voice said,
“It’s Blighty, p’raps, he sees; his pluck’s all gone,
Dreaming of all the valiant, that AREN’T dead:
Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;
Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun
In some new home, improved materially.
It’s not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun.”
We sent him down at last, out of the way.
Unwounded;—stout lad, too, before that strafe.
Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, “Not half!”
Next day I heard the Doc.’s well-whiskied laugh:
“That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!”
Owen and Sassoon
While convalescing at the Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, Owen’s doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged him to translate his experiences, specifically the experiences he relived in his dreams, into poetry as a kind of therapy. It was here that he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who had a profound effect on him. Sassoon was born into a wealthy Jewish merchant family. An officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, he displayed such bravery in the front line that he was known as Mad Jack for his near-suicidal exploits. His brother was killed in November 1915 at Gallipoli. The aristocratic Sassoon had been twice decorated for bravery, but developed antiwar views which got him into serious trouble with the authorities.
In June 1917 he wrote a letter that was published in The Times in which he argued that the war was being deliberately and unnecessarily prolonged by the government. In the prevailing climate of chauvinism, such subversive declarations from a decorated war hero inevitably caused a furor. It was only the intervention of his friends that saved him from a court martial. Anyone who raised his voice against the Great War for Civilization was considered to be either a traitor or a madman. The poet Robert Graves managed to convince the authorities that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock. He was sent to Craiglockhart for treatment for his “mental illness.”
Sassoon was already a well-known poet, and contact with him transformed both the style and content of Owen’s verse. In place of the dreamy romanticism of his early work, he was inspired by Sassoon’s harsh realism, taking as his subject matter his personal experience of war. Owen worshipped Sassoon. He wrote to his mother that he was “not worthy to light [Sassoon's] pipe.” In reality, he became a greater poet than Sassoon ever was. However, it was Sassoon who is to be thanked for promoting Owen’s poetry, both before and after Owen’s death.
The horrors of trench warfare were by now deeply engraved on Owen’s consciousness. The opening verses of Anthem for Doomed Youth convey Owen’s burning anger and deep sense of injustice at the loss of so many young lives. He is not writing from the comfort of his study, but from his own bitter experience. Here is the voice of one who has seen the horrors of which he writes:
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.
Sassoon was posted to Palestine, and then returned to France, where he was again wounded and sent back to England, where he spent the remainder of the war. Owen himself could have stayed on home duty indefinitely. But he decided otherwise. In July 1918 he returned to active service in France. Probably he saw it as his duty to follow the example of Sassoon so that the public should be told of the horrific realities of the war. Sassoon was flatly opposed to the idea of Owen returning to the trenches, even threatening to “stab [him] in the leg” if he tried it.
On August 26, Owen was declared fit for front line action and instructed to embark for France. He did not inform his friend of his departure until he was already on the other side of the Channel. He wrote to Sassoon, “Everything is clear now; and I am in hasty retreat towards the Front.” On returning to the front, Owen served with distinction. On October 1, 1918, he led units of the Second Manchesters storming a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. In recognition of his bravery in action he was awarded the Military Cross. The official citation reads as follows:
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.
In his last letter to his mother, Owen tries to reassure her and calm her fears:
It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells . . . 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
Shortly after writing these lines, on November 4, 1918, Wilfred Owen led his men—his band of friends—into action for the last time. At 5:45 in the morning, under a hail of machine gun fire, the Royal Engineers attempted to construct a bridge out of wire-linked floats so that Owen’s brigade and 15th and 16th Lancashire Fusiliers could cross and destroy or capture the enemy. Group after group of soldiers advanced into the deadly shower of lead.
Wilfred Owen was standing at the water’s edge of the Sambre Canal at Ors, encouraging his men, when he was cut down. He was twenty-five years old. In a tragic irony, his mother received the letter informing her of his death on November 11, the very day when the church bells were ringing out all over the land to celebrate the end of the Great War for Civilization.
Owen’s early death robbed humanity of a great poet. His literary reputation rests on a single slim volume of verses, edited by his friend Sassoon, which first saw the light of day in 1920. Despite its scant size, this volume contains some of the most moving English poetry of the First World War, including Insensibility, Dulce et Decorum Est, Futility, and Anthem for Doomed Youth. These powerful works represent a cry of protest against the senseless sacrifice of millions of young men in the mud, blood, and poison gas of the trenches, and the mindless cruelty of cynical generals who, without blinking an eye, sent these men to their death as sheep to the slaughter, an entire generation sacrificed on the bloody altar of imperialism.
The paradox that Owen saw so clearly is that there is no poetry in war. He wrote:
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Owen saw his role as making others see what he could see. Having been in the trenches, he could no longer take refuge in patriotic falsehoods or paint beautiful pictures of an ugly and brutal reality. Unlike those who tried to fool the public by presenting a sanitized and inspiring picture of the imperialist slaughter, Owen fearlessly told the truth.
Today, as a mournful reminder of the appalling loss of life in the First World War, one can still see in towns and villages all over Britain stone monuments with the names of dead soldiers, below which one reads the inscription: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. This means, “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.” These Latin words, taken from an ode by the Roman poet Horace, now seem to us to be a cruel mockery of the dead. But at the start of the war these words were frequently quoted (by people conveniently far from the front line) as a justification for the imperialist slaughter. In what is probably his best-known poem Dulce et decorum est, Owen uses a horrifically graphic account of a poison gas attack to mercilessly destroy these illusions:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
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.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
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,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
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.
Owen’s poetry is not a manifestation of an anemic pacifism, but a faithful reflection of the lives, deaths, and sufferings of the soldiers in the trenches. It gives voice to the feelings of rage and indignation that later exploded in mutinies in the French and British armies, and in the Russian and German revolutions of 1917 and 1918. The name of Wilfred Owen will always be cherished by everyone who fights against tyranny and injustice, for a better world in which the horrors of war will be nothing more than a nightmare vaguely remembered from a barbarous past.
London, October 8, 2015