Wilfred Owen: The soldiers poet

Daily Telegraph

Jeremy Paxman on the extraordinary achievement of Wilfred Owen, who abominated war yet died a great warrior

For me, he is the greatest of all the war poets. But there is nothing original in my enthusiasm.

Owen developed intense respect for the soldier
I don't suppose there's a thoughtful student in the land who is unaware of Wilfred Owen's best-known poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est".

Indeed, it tells us something about our pervading cynicism that Horace's words are now taken more readily as sarcasm than at face value.

It is often assumed – as a student, I made the mistake myself – that the poem's author was some sort of bitter, jaundiced pacifist. But the enigma of Wilfred Owen is that he was anything but that. The fascination of his life is his embodiment of contradictions.

It is true that he was not among the first to answer the call to bash the Boche. Indeed, he seems to have been a rather fey and precious young man, first as a vicar's assistant in Berkshire, and then as an English teacher in France.

When he finally decided to join the Army (through the Artists' Rifles, to fit with his own idea of himself as a poet, despite the fact that he was unpublished, and, frankly, not very good, either) he was repulsed by the coarseness of the men among whom he found himself.

But his letters to his mother – our main source of information about his life – show how much he changed. Initial distaste at the vulgarity of the sweaty, noisy men among whom he was obliged to live became a genuine love.

By the end of the First World War, he had become not only their advocate but a true military hero himself.

Owen was initially repulsed by the coarseness of the Army
The vital event was the horrific experience of having to take shelter from German artillery fire on the side of a railway embankment. Owen was trapped there for days, lying amid the remains of a popular fellow officer. It triggered shell-shock.

Early victims of the condition had had to put up with the boneheaded prejudice of generals who considered it be merely the mental equivalent of Malingerer's Back. Some of the early casualties had even been "treated" with electric shocks, on the theory that, if the pain was bad enough, they might decide that the terror of the trenches was preferable.

Owen was luckier, and, at Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, came under the care of a regime that believed in a form of occupational therapy. By chance, a fellow officer and poet, Siegfried Sassoon, was also a patient there, having been sent to Craiglockhart for having the temerity to publish a letter criticising the conduct of the war.

The manuscripts of the surviving Owen poems, kept in a vault at the British Library, show Sassoon's handwriting on Owen's poems, evidence of the vital role the relationship would have in the refining of his poetry.

The most remarkable aspect of Owen's stay at the hospital, though, is the fact that he emerged not merely as the author of some of the most stunning poetry of the 20th century – and the voice of a generation – but that he was also determined to return to the front line.

Owen's letters to his mother are our main source of information about his life
Sassoon begged him not to go, and even threatened, at one point, to stab him in the leg to prevent him doing so.

But Owen would not be deterred, and the man who returned to France was a superb soldier. In one attack, in which he captured a German machine post and scores of prisoners almost single-handed, he writes to his mother with the extraordinary expression that he "fought like an angel". The events earned him a Military Cross.

The last letter home, written at the end of October 1918, describes how he is sheltering with his men in the cellar of a forester's cottage in northern France, before an attempt to cross the canal that marked the front line.

Crammed into the smoky fug – he says he can hardly see by the light of a candle only 12 inches away – the men are laughing, sleeping, smoking or peeling potatoes. "It is a great life," he writes joyfully, and goes on, "you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here."

Utterly wrong, then, to think of him as some sanctimonious hand-wringer. The paradox of Owen – that he had become a first-rate warrior while abominating war – is what gives his poems their unique strength.

While filming Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale for the BBC, we talked to Justin Featherstone, a young major who won the Military Cross in Iraq. I had imagined that he would prefer Rupert Brooke's vision of "The Soldier":

If I should die, think only this

of me

That there is some corner of a

foreign field

That is forever England.

Not a bit of it, he said. Owen is the soldier's poet, because he understands what soldiering is really like, the horror and fear, alongside the dry?throated heroism. Brooke's sonnet may be the one for military funerals. Owen is the poet for the living.

And yet Owen did not live to see peace himself. After sheltering in the cellar, he and his men were deployed to the banks of the canal, at Ors. In the early morning of November 4, 1918, they were given the order to storm the canal, in the face of withering German machine-gun fire. Owen never reached the other side.

Seven days later, as his mother stood listening to the church bells peeling for the end of the war, she received the dreadful telegram with the news that her precious son was dead.

Is it because he never lived to versify about the mundane pleasures of peace that Owen is the greatest war poet? It's part of it, of course: his own life is a perfect example of the loss of illusions and innocence that the war brought to our entire civilisation.

Most of all, though, Owen's poetry, like his life, scorns easy attitudinising. Of course, "Dulce et Decorum Est" was written to rebut the jingoistic bilge of "poets" such as Jessie Pope who produced doggerel in the Daily Mail ("A gun, a gun to shoot the Hun," etc.)

But it is Owen's intense respect for the soldier that makes his poetry so powerful. Those who did not return have their meticulously maintained stone memorials on the fields of Flanders. But their memorial in our minds is largely built by Wilfred Owen.

Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale is on BBC1 on Nov 11 at 5.50pm. Jeremy Paxman has asked that his fee for this article be given to the Poppy Appeal
Colour image from World War One in Colour, a free, seven-part DVD collection narrated by Kenneth Branagh and featuring rare colour footage. The DVD Catastrophe will be free inside The Daily Telegraph next Saturday and Slaughter in the Trenches will be free inside The Sunday Telegraph the following day; the remaining five DVDs will be available free at WHSmith

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Owen's draft, with Siegfried Sassoon's amendments, written while they were in hospital
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.
Currently teaching 'Dulce' and 'Disabled' to my S2 class for the War Poetry Unit. Good article and some good points by Paxo there. Thanks for bringing it here.

I personally think 'Disabled' is better - gives a cruel but sympathetic insight into the wrecked young lives of those who did NOT die but returned crippled at an early age to sit in chairs waiting for someone to take them to their beds etc having been typical young 'gods in kilts' when they joined up.

Disabled - Wilfred Owen

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
— In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now he is old; his back will never brace;
He's lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race,
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a bloodsmear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,
He thought he'd better join. He wonders why . . .
Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts.
That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn't have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; and no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come?
Excellent posts, i do prefer Wilfred Owen, he was more the squaddies poet, though WW1 did bring out some of the most moving poetry ever. Be a very interesting programme.
There is an excellent little book available 'poems of the great war' . Some truly moving words in there, we can only imagine the horror they fought through.
I'm not going to knock the collection of Great War poets, much of their writing is excellent, thought provoking stuff but.....

Theirs is not necessarily the voices we should listen to. They were a tiny minority of those that served and their views are often far removed from those of the rest.

It's a shame that these, mainly well educated men from a narrow strata of society have become the spokesmen for all who took part. Many other participants would disagree with the overall impression gained from their poems.

A more realistic view of attitudes can be found in, "A Schoolboy Into War" by H E L Mellersh.

Mellersh deplored the delusion that the majority of the participants saw it as a "vast useless tragedy, worthy only to be remembered as an heroic mistake."

The legacy of the likes of Sassoon and Owen is that film makers, novelists and the general public are addicted to this "futility" school of WWI.

Probably the best selling novel to have come out of the Great War was written by a private soldier (albeit a failed commission officer and an educated man), "Her Privates We" by Frederick Manning.

Manning's novel is autobiographical, first published in 1929, it has never been rivalled. It was hailed at that time by those who had served in the trenches as being as accurate an account as it was possible to get.

Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Brooke et al were extraordinary young men who had extraordinary views and the ability to be heard.

(Having said all that, I agree that Owen is the best of the bunch).
All excellent responses, thank you. I tried googling the Manning book but unfortunately it is out of print on Amazon. Does anyone know if it has been republished? Similarly, is the Mellersh tome still available?

Is the text of 'The Better Parts of Fortune' of which 'Her Privates We' is an expurgated version. Fascinating and now downloaded to my tablet for reading during a quiet period when my S4s are busy writing their short stories on Wilfred Owen...
"A Schoolboy into War" is out of print but you can find some second-hand copies (usually ex-library copies) from second-hand specialists. I just checked and Amazon has links to these.

"Her Privates We" is available from Amazon (it's worth looking at the Amazon reviews, all are four star - not mine by the way. I was surprised by how good the reviews are, I didn't think many people would have read it).
Cabarfeidh said:

Is the text of 'The Better Parts of Fortune' of which 'Her Privates We' is an expurgated version. Fascinating and now downloaded to my tablet for reading during a quiet period when my S4s are busy writing their short stories on Wilfred Owen...
"Her Privates We" is the unexpurgated version (properly soldierly language). The title gives a hint, it's a quotation from Shakespeare and does refer to the anatomical use of the word "privates." :wink:

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