Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 1893 - 1918
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born on March 18, 1893 in Shropshire, England. After the death of his grandfather in 1897, the family moved to Birkenhead, where Owen was educated at the Birkenhead Institute. After another move in 1906, he continued his continued his studies at the Technical School in Shrewsbury. Interested in the arts at a young age, Owen began to experiment with poetry at 17.
After failing to gain entrance into the University of London, Owen spent a year as a lay assistant to Reverend Herbert Wigan in 1911 and went on to teach in France at the Berlitz School of English. He was a committed Christian and became lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden near Reading 1911-1913 – teaching Bible classes and leading prayer meetings – as well as visiting parishioners and helping in other ways. From 1913 to 1915 he worked as a language tutor in France. By 1915, he became increasingly interested in World War I and enlisted in the Artists' Rifles group. After training in England, Owen was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He spent the last day of 1916 in a tent in France joining the Second Manchesters. He was full of boyish high spirits at being a soldier.
Within a week he had been transported to the front line in a cattle wagon and was "sleeping" 70 or 80 yards from a heavy gun which fired every minute or so. He was soon wading miles along trenches two feet deep in water. Within a few days he was experiencing gas attacks and was horrified by the stench of the rotting dead; his sentry was blinded, his company then slept out in deep snow and intense frost till the end of January. That month was a profound shock for him: he now understood the meaning of war. "The people of England needn't hope. They must agitate," he wrote home. (See his poems The Sentry and Exposure.)
He escaped bullets until the last week of the war, but he saw a good deal of front-line action: he was blown up, concussed and suffered shell-shock in combat in 1917 and evacuated to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh after being diagnosed with shell shock. There he met another patient, poet Siegfried Sassoon, who served as a mentor and inspired him to develop his war poetry. Sassoon also introduced him to well-known literary figures such as Robert Graves and H. G. Wells.
It was at this time Owen wrote many of his most important poems, including "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est". His poetry often graphically illustrated both the horrors of warfare, the physical landscapes which surrounded him, and the human body in relation to those landscapes. His verses stand in stark contrast to the patriotic poems of war written by earlier poets of Great Britain, such as Rupert Brooke.
Owen rejoined his regiment in Scarborough, June 1918, and in August returned to France. He was sent back to the trenches in September, 1918 and in October won the Military Cross for bravery at Amiens where he seized a German machine-gun and using it to kill a number of Germans.
He was killed on November 4 of that year while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre canal near the village of Ors. He was 25 years old. The news of his death reached his parents home as the Armistice bells were ringing on 11 November, 1918.
The collected Poems of Wilfred Owen appeared in December 1920, with an introduction by Sassoon, and he has since become one of the most admired poets of World War I. A review of Owen's poems published on December 29th, 1920, just two years after his death, read "Others have shown the disenchantment of war, have unlegended the roselight and romance of it, but none with such compassion for the disenchanted nor such sternly just and justly stern judgment on the idyllisers." About Owen's post-war audience, the writer Geoff Dyer said, "To a nation stunned by grief the prophetic lag of posthumous publication made it seem that Owen was speaking...