Born on this day in 1893 Wilfred Owen died aged 25, on November 4th 1918, one week before the end of the Great War. This is his 125th birthday.
A thoughtful poet before the war Owen was denied a proper education by his family poverty. He did not attain sufficient marks to win a scholarship. When the war began he was a reluctant participant, but saw it as his duty to enlist which he did in October 1915.
He was commissioned as an officer in June 1916 and spend the months when the Battle of the Somme was raging in a training camp at Étaples. He was brought up to active duty on the Somme in January 1917. He underwent heavy shelling in January, was injured in March from a fall into a cellar. Returned to duty in April, was hit by a shell in May.
Suffering from shell shock he was repatriated to Edinburgh to recuperate. It was in Craiglockhart War Hospital that he met Siegfried Sassoon who became his mentor. The pair went on to write some of the best anti-war poetry in history. They saw it as their duty to expose the awful reality of war. For me the poem below achieves this better than any other.
Dulce Et Decorum Est ; by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
till on the haunting flares we turned out 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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.