‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?’
(Wilfred Owen, ‘Futility’)
In 1914, Europe and her dominions became embroiled in the most terrible and destructive war the world had ever seen. In four years, an estimated two million lives would be lost. Countless others, including several of my own great-grandfathers, would be left physically and psychologically scarred by their experiences, and names like the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and Gallipoli would become seared into the collective national consciousness of the West.
Many of those who signed up to fight, particularly in 1914 and early 1915, did so in a glorious quest for king and country. Many others were conscripts, forced to fight or face being imprisoned and treated as social pariahs. But one thing almost all these young men had in common was that they were part of one of the most literate generations ever to go to war. Education, at least to a primary school level, was widespread throughout the English-speaking world by the beginning of the 20th century, and it was through writing that some of the countless thousands of soldiers found an outlet for their feelings of fear, anger, helplessness, sorrow, and confusion at the horror that confronted them.
Pre-eminent among these soldier-poets is Wilfred Owen. Born in Shropshire, England, in 1893, Owen was an educated young man with a love of the Romantic poets and, in early life at least, a devout Anglican faith. He enlisted in October 1915, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment in June 1916.
His experiences on the Western Front were, as for all who served there, horrific. He suffered concussion in a shell-hole, was blown into the air by a trench mortar, and spent several days lying exposed in the company of the dead. Diagnosed with shellshock (which today we would recognise as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to recover, where he met another great war poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon encouraged Owen in his poetic endeavours, and in March 1918 he was declared fit for duty and discharged.
Most of Owen’s work was published posthumously, and is unflinching in its portrayal of the horrors of war and in decrying those who attempt to glorify it. It remains compelling a hundred years on, conjuring up a world of unimaginable suffering so vividly that it is sometimes difficult to read. In one of his best-known poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ he confronts the reader with the gruesome spectacle of a man dying slowly after being exposed to poison gas (a common weapon in WWI), and avows that if the reader could see him, then:
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.*
(*How sweet and honourable it is to die for your country.)
In the eerie and compelling ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen imagines himself wandering through a shadowy underworld, confronted with the growing realisation that he is dead, but viewing death not as cause for grief but rather as an escape from the horror of battle, to a place where blood cannot reach nor the thump of guns be heard, where there is no more need of fighting and he can at last sleep.
And it seems that in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ he may have been ironically echoing the introduction to an anthology of modern (at the time) English verse, ‘Poems of Today’, which was first published in May 1915. In the prefatory note, the compiler speaks blithely of one of the youngest poets having ‘gone singing to lay down his life for his country’s cause’ in ‘the present war’, whilst clearly being preoccupied with the English pastoral ideal and a Romantic vision of ‘the familiar countryside, of woodland and meadow and garden, of the process of the seasons, of the “open road” and the “wind on the heath”… the music of Pan’s flute, and of Love’s viol, and of the bugle-call of Endeavour, and the passing-bell of Death.’
Owen’s response (Anthem for Doomed Youth) is best read for yourself:
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 from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling 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 good-byes.
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.
Wilfred Owen died in battle on the Somme on November 4th 1918, one week before the War ended. According to some accounts, his mother received the telegram containing the news of his death as the church bells were joyfully pealing in celebration of the Armistice.