The Pity of War

Poet: Wilfred Owen
Born: 18 March 1893, Oswestry, England
Nationality: English
Died: 4 November 1918, Sambre-Oise Canal, France

Owen, a poet and soldier. was one of leading poets of the First World War, his war poetry on the horrors of the trenches and gas warfare stood in stark contradiction to the public perception of war at the time. His best-know works, most published after his death, include Insensibility, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Futility, Dulce et Decorum est, and Spring Offensive.

Own was born at Plas Wilmot, a house in Weston Lane near Oswestry, Shropshire, UK. His parents lived in a comfortable house owned by Owen’s grandfather, Edward Shaw. The house was sold in 1897, after Shaw’s death, and the family lodged in the backstreets of Birkenhead. His father worked in town employed by a railway company and in April 1897 was transferred to Shrewsbury where the family lived with his paternal grandparents in Canon Street. The family moved back to Birkenhead when Owen’s father became stationmaster at Woodside station in 1898, returning to Shrewsbury in 1907. Owen was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School.

Owen discovered his vocation for poetry in 1904 during a holiday in Cheshire. Raised as an evangelical Anglican, and a devout believer during his youth, his early influences included the Bible and the Romantic poets. The last two years of Owen’s education saw him in the role of pupil-teacher at Wyle Cop School in Shrewsbury. In 1911 he passed the matriculation exam for the University of London. However, he didn’t gain first class honours to attain a scholarship and his family’s circumstances meant he was unable to afford to attend. Owen worked as a lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden, living in the vicarage from 1911 to 1913. During this time he attended classes at University College, Reading, in botany and later in Old English. He also became disillusioned with the church, both in its ceremony and the failure to provide support for those in need.

Owen worked as a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages from 1913 and later with a family. He met the French poet Laurent Tailhade. When war broke out in 1914 Owen didn’t rush to enlist and whilst he considered the French army he eventually returned to England.

Own enlisted in the Artists Rifles Officer’s Training Corps in October 1915. He trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex for seven months and in June 1916 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment. Initially unimpressed by his troops who he described as expressionless lumps his imaginative existence was changed dramatically by a number of traumatic experiences including falling into a shell hole and suffered concussion and being caught in the shell blast of a trench mortar and spent several days unconscious on an embankment lying amid the remains of a fellow officer. Soon afterwards, diagnosed with neurasthenia (shell shock) Owen was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment, While he was recuperating at Craiglockhart Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, a meeting that was to transform Owen’s life.

It was whilst at Craiglockhart Owen made friends in Edinburgh’s literary and artistic circles, and did some teaching at the Tynecastle High School, in an impoverished area of the city. Judged fir for light regimental duties he was discharged from Craiglockhart in November 1917. After a fruitful winter in Scarborough, North Yorkshire he was posted to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon in March 1918. While in Ripon he composed a number of poems including ‘Futility’ and ‘Strange Meeting’

Although he could have stayed on home-duty indefinitely, Owen returned to active service in France in July 1918. Owen saw it as his duty to add his voice to that of Sassoon, injured in a friendly-fire incident, expressing the horrific realities of war.

In August 1918, Owen returned to the front line. On 1 October 1918 he led units of the Second Manchesters to storm a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry and devotion to duty, an award Own felt justified himself as a war poet. Owen was killed in action during the crossing of the Sombre-Oise Canal on 4 November 1918, just a week before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war.

Anthem For Doomed Youth
Wilfred Owen
1917

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 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

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