Armistice Day 2014; Wilfred Owen, poet in action

Yesterday I read a piece by Jeremy Paxman – usually a fount of good sense – on why there is no point in commemorating Armistice Day, because mere silence has failed to end war. Well, of course it has. No one now believes in ‘a last war’. There were perhaps five minutes – round about the fall of the Berlin Wall – when my generation believed in peace. In the thirty years since I feel like the Old Man in 1984. When he remembers something happening ‘before the war’, Winston asks him ‘what war was that?’ ‘What war?’ says the Old Man: ‘It’s all wars.’

Even if we think it can’t change very much, it is still so important to remember the First World War, because it was the first time the world felt that it had gone too far; that war was not simply an instrument of foreign policy but a threat to civilisation. And no one – in English – expressed that dread better than the war poets.

I wrote this piece on Wilfred Owen for the programme of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, using his own words from his letters to his mother. Britten’s Requiem is a beautiful piece; in a way, I thought, too beautiful. Reading Owen’s poetry can be ugly and horrifying like swimming up though phlegm. Reading Owen’s letters you get a sense not only of the nightmare in the trenches, but the dread the soldiers’ families must have felt at home.

Last week we watched the BBC’s Passing Bells – named after Owen’s poem – where British and German soldiers wrote the same reassuring words to their families: ‘We have plenty to eat. We’re safe behind the lines.’ Owen spared no detail in his letters home. They can be merciless:

‘I can see no excuse for deceiving you about the last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.’

But it makes the glimpse of true happiness in his last letter all the more affecting:

‘I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here… Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.’

By the time Owen’s parents read this letter he was already dead, and they received the news on Armistice Day, 96 years ago today.

NPG P515; Wilfred Owen by John Gunston

Wilfred Owen by John Gunston 1916 (c) National Portrait Gallery

At 6.15pm October 31st 1918, Wilfred Owen wrote a letter to his mother Susan, from a place ‘I will call… “The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House.”

‘So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins away, & so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges or jolts. On my left the Coy. Commander snores on a bench… At my right-hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Coy. in The Old Days radiates joy & contentment … He laughs with a signaler… whose eyes rolling with gaity[sic] show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away… nothing a gleam of white teeth – & a wheeze of jokes…

‘It is a great life. I am more oblivious than, alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells. There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.’1

Three days later, on the morning of November 4th at 5.45 Owen led his platoon of D Company the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment in the assault across the Sambre-Oise Canal. The far bank was held more strongly than expected, and it took six hours for the Manchesters to cross the canal and secure the other bank. Four VCs, two posthumous, were awarded for the action. Owen was seen walking backwards and forwards between his men, saying ‘Well done,’ and ‘You’re doing very well my boy.’ 2 He was killed attempting to cross the canal on a raft, a week before the Armistice.

‘Serene’ is the right word for Owen’s state of mind at this date. When he returned to France in August 1918 he had found his voice, and distilled its message to the famous words in his rough draft for the foreword to a collected edition of his work:

‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The poetry is in the Pity.

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.’3

As a boy, steeped in evangelical religion, Owen meant to join the Church. From the age of thirteen, obsessed with John Keats, he was determined to be a poet. Poetry, not patriotism, had caused Owen to volunteer for the army in 1915. He had been tutoring in France when war broke out. Debating his next move, he read this line in Hilaire Belloc:

‘If any man despairs of becoming a Poet, let him carry his pack and march in the rank.’4

He was fully aware of war’s realities by this date. In September 1914 he had visited a makeshift hospital treating casualties from the Front. A letter to his brother Harold, describes a man whose shinbone has been shattered by a gun carriage, and another whose head has been shot through by a bullet, each case illustrated with a sketch: ‘I deliberately tell you all this to educate you to the actualities of the war.’

Owen’s poetry up to this date had looked back to the languid ecstasies and marble passions of Keats. The sights he had witnessed in the hospital soon appear in his work. Long Ages Past written in October 1914, a hymn to destruction, includes the line ‘The livid dead were given thee for toys.’ 5

After training in England, Owen was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment. He posted to France in January 1917. A letter to his mother January 4th just after arriving is full of amazement at his translation from civilization to a war zone:

‘I arrived at Folkestone, and put up in the best hotel. It was a place of luxury – inconceivable now – carpets as deep as the mud here – golden flunkeys; pages who must have been melted into their clothes and expanded since; even the porters had clean hands. Even the dogs that licked up the crumbs had clean teeth.’6

The Battalion was sent into the Line at Serre, where Owen saw action for this first time:

‘I can see no excuse for deceiving you about the last 4 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…. the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4 ad 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water. Men have been known to drown in them… High explosives were dropping all around and machine guns spluttered every few minutes.’

‘One entrance had been blown in and blocked… The Germans knew we were staying and decided we shouldn’t.

‘Every ten minutes on Sunday afternoon seemed an hour.

‘I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now rising over my knees.

‘In The Platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing… I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs in the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I am afraid, blinded. This was my only casualty…’8

The blinded man ‘eyes bulging like squid’ and his men’s ordeal in the dug-out provided the material for The Sentry, Owen’s first work filled with the undiluted horror of the trenches. After a brief rest for concussion in March, Owen fought through the Battle of St Quentin in April.

Owen was sent scouting across No Man’s Land: ‘I started out at midnight with 2 corporals & 6 picked men.’ The contours of the ground kept them unseen by enemy flares; Owen discovered the line of the trenches without difficulty, but still had to find out how strongly they were held: ‘So then I took an inch or two of cover and made a noise like a platoon. Instantly we had at least two machine guns turned on us, and a few odd rifles. Then we made a scramble for “home”.’9

The Battalion spent two weeks in the Line, and as Owen was resting fitfully,

‘A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway Cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron.’10

A fellow officer was killed, and the experience of lying out overnight with the other man’s body nearby affected Owen very badly. He was diagnosed with shell-shock and sent to the army’s pioneering psychiatric hospital for officers at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh.

At Craiglockhart, shellshock was recognized as a mental rather than a physical condition. Owen’s doctor, Captain Brock encouraged him to come to terms with his experience by talking it through, rather than repressing it. It was the perfect therapy for a poet. And for Owen, who had never been to university, Craiglockhart functioned as his university. He wrote for the hospital magazine, gave lectures, taught in a local school, and met like-minded people. Most importantly, he met Siegfried Sassoon, hesitating outside his door the first time, like the hero-worshipping boy who had taken the train to Teignmouth to peer through the windows of the house where Keats had once lived.

Sassoon was impressed by Owen’s work. His encouragement and friendship were the last stage in Owen’s evolution as a mature poet. Sassoon also introduced Owen to his literary friends. Magazine editors began asking to publish his work, and in this period he wrote his masterpieces, Anthem for Doomed Youth and Dulce Et Decorum Est:

‘Five years go as you suggest’ he wrote to his mother – ‘this would have turned my head… celebrity is the last infirmity I desire… I have the silent and immortal friendship of Sassoon and Graves and those. Behold are they not already as many Keatses.’11

Sassoon may also have helped Owen to come to terms with his homosexuality, at odds with his evangelical upbringing.12 It is suggested that this made Owen and Sassoon particularly caring and sympathetic officers; quite possibly, but Owen took his soldiering as seriously as his poetry, telling his brother Harold in 1916, that if he was going to be a soldier,

‘I must be a good one…. I cannot alter myself inside… but at least without any self-questioning I can change outside… D’you remember us running along the High Street with my coat all buttoned up wrong? I can’t do that sort of thing now… outwardly I will conform… my inward force will be the greater for it.’13

When he was declared fit in August 1918 he wrote:

‘I am much gladder to be going out again than afraid. I shall be better able to cry my outcry playing my part.’14

By October he was in his element:

‘I lost all my earthly faculties and fought like an angel.

‘With the Corporal who stuck to me and shadowed me like your prayers I captured a German Machine Gun and scores of prisoners…..

‘I was recommended for the Military Cross; and have recommended every single NCO who was with me!

‘My nerves are in perfect order. I came out in order to help these boys – directly by leading them as well as an officer can, indirectly by watching their sufferings so that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can…

‘Moreover the war is nearing an end.’15

In a strange way, Owen was happier in these last months than at any other time in his life. He was recognized as a poet – and best of all ‘a poets’ Poet’ – and at last he felt whole as an artist and a man. After so many letters that brought with them the mud and stink and fear of the trenches, his last ends on a note of idyllic, unfeigned happiness:

‘I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed, as resignedly I think of you always in bed. 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’16

Owen’s parents received the news of his death on Armistice Day.

  1. Letter to Susan Owen August 21st 1918 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive. Collected Letters of Wilfred Owen Harold Owen and John Bell Oxford University Press 1967 no.673
  2. John Stallworthy Wilfred Owen Oxford 1977 p286
  3. Stallworthy p266
  4. ibid p121
  5. ibid pp110, 111
  6. Letter to Susan Owen January 4th 1917 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive Collected Letters no.476
  7. Letter to Susan Owen January 16th 1917 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive Collected Letters no.480
  8. Letter to Susan Owen January 16th 1917 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive. Collected Letters no.480
  9. Letter to Susan Owen April 6th – 8th 1917 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive. Collected no.503
  10. Letter to Susan Owen April 25th 1917 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive. Collected Letters no.505
  11. Letter to Susan Owen May 25th 1918 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive. Collected Letters no.622
  12. Jon Stallworthy, ‘Owen, Wilfred Edward Salter (1893–1918)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford 2004
  13. Stallworthy 1977 145, 146
  14. Letter to Susan Owen August 10th 1918 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive Collected Letters no.643
  15. Letter to Susan Owen October 4th – 5th 1918 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive Collected Letters no.662
  16. Letter to Susan Owen August 21st 1918 © The Harry Ransom Center/Wilfred Owen Literary Archive. Collected Letters no.673

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