“Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori”.
A noble sentiment, taken from a poem by Horace, and one which was taken as a veritable truth by virtually every man, woman and child in the early years of twentieth century Britain.
The memories of Britain’s last conflict, the Boer War, had faded. Victoria’s reign was over and a more frivolous society began to emerge under the reign of Edward VII, and continued when George V succeeded him in 1910. The country was at peace and life was good.
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire in March 1893. Shortly after his birth, the family fortunes took a downward turn, on the death of his maternal grandfather, Edward Shaw, who had been Mayor of Oswestry. After his death, Shaw was discovered to have been bankrupt, and the Owen family, who had been living in his house, were forced to move to more modest lodgings. Birkenhead in Cheshire became home to the infant Owen, and his mother determined that her son would, in time, restore the family’s prosperity and gentility.
Owen began writing poems at the age of ten, having fallen under the spell of the poetry of Keats, who was to remain a major influence on his work.
On leaving school in 1911, Wilfred Owen took up a post as lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire. He became critical of the role of the Church in society. His writings of that time show an increasing awareness of the sufferings of the poor, and the awakening of the compassion which is a characteristic of the poems he wrote on the Western Front.
During the first few weeks of 1913, Owen suffered a crisis of faith. He realised that literature meant more to him than religion, and he left Dunsden on the verge of a nervous breakdown. During his period of recovery that summer, he became interested in the archaeological remains of the Roman city of Uriconium. In one of his early poems, Uriconium, an Ode, he displays his first awareness of the bodies of the victims of war.
Having applied for a scholarship to university, and been turned down, Owen left England for France. War was declared while he was still teaching English there. He visited a hospital for the wounded, and this presented him with an apocalyptic vision of the horrors of war. However, he returned to England in 1915 and enlisted in the army as a Private. After a period of training in Essex, Owen joined the 2nd Manchesters on the Somme in early January 1917. His letters to his mother are graphic descriptions of the conditions endured by him and his fellow soldiers at this time.
In March 1917, following a fall from which he sustained a concussion, Owen was involved in a period of fierce fighting at the front, near St. Quentin. He was invalided home, suffering from shell-shock. In Craiglochart War Hospital on the outskirts of Edinburgh, he met Siegfried Sassoon, whose first “war” poems had just been published. Owen was inspired by this book, and greatly encouraged by Sassoon. Finding a language for his own experience, he wrote the poem Anthem for Doomed Youth.
He began writing Dulce et Decorum Est at about this time. His graphic descriptions of the battlefield had been triggered as an angry response to a poem by Jessie Pope, to whom manuscript versions of Dulce et Decorum Est are dedicated. She was the author of another kind of war poem, one of which began:
Who’s for the trench –
Are you, my laddie?
Who’ll follow the French –
Will you, my laddie?
Who’s fretting to begin,
Who’s going to win?
And who wants to save his skin –
Do you, my laddie?
In Owen’s opinion, Pope’s comparison of war to a game of rugby, and the implication that the players were admirable and those on the sidelines disregarded, was simply glorifying and giving a completely unrealistic vision of war.
In December 1917, Sassoon was posted to France, and in March 1918, Owen was transferred to what he described as...