Wilfred Owen 1893 – 1918
‘All that was strongest in Wilfred Owen survives in his poems…he pitied others although he did not pity himself….. he attained a clear vision of what he needed to say, and (his) poems survive him as his true and splendid testament.’
These thoughts of Siegfried Sassoon in his preface to the first edition of Owen’s poems, written well after his death, although accurate, come nowhere near to suggesting that decades later, Wilfred Owen would be appreciated as one of the most significant writers of the century, and almost certainly the most widely read poet of the last hundred years.
From humble beginnings, Owen’s life was irrevocably changed by the First World War when he became a relatively reluctant volunteer in 1915. As a junior Officer with the Manchester Regiment Owen’s war experience was telescoped into two relatively short tours, early 1917 and late 1918. The first of these was spent initially under intense fire on the old Somme battlefields, (‘The Sentry’ and ‘Exposure’), then further east near the town of St Quentin, (’Spring Offensive’ ,’Dulce et Decorum Est’) when, amongst other experiences, he stayed for some days ‘in a hole just big enough to lie in’, with, for company, a friend and fellow officer ‘who lay in various places round about’. After a nervous breakdown, treatment and recovery in Edinburgh, (including a famous literary meeting with Siegfried Sassoon), Owen returned to France to take part in some of the last actions of the war, distinguishing himself sufficiently to be awarded a Military Cross, (‘I only shot one man with my revolver. The rest I took with a smile’).
A better appreciation of Owen’s poetry can be gained by visiting some of the sites of those front line experiences, ‘an old Boche dugout’ in no man’s land, or the fateful Sambre canal, the crossing of which Owen would not live to write about. Owen lies buried a few hundred yards from the scene of his death in the company of two Victoria Cross winners killed in that same action bearing witness to the ferocity of the fighting that claimed the foremost of our war poets.