Few would challenge the claim that Wilfred Owen is the greatest writer of war poetry in the English language. He wrote out of his intense personal experience as a soldier and wrote with unrivalled power of the physical, moral and psychological trauma of the First World War. All of his great war poems on which his reputation rests were written in a mere fifteen months. From the age of nineteen Wilfred Owen wanted to become a poet and immersed himself in poetry, being especially impressed by Keats and Shelley. He was working in France, close to the Pyrenees, as a private tutor when the First World War broke out. At this time he was remote from the war and felt completely disconnected from it too. Even when he visited the local hospital with a doctor friend and examined, at close quarters, the nature of the wounds of soldiers who were arriving from the Western Front, the war still appeared to him as someone else's story. Eventually he began to feel guilty of his inactivity as he read copies of The Daily Mail which his mother sent him from England. He returned to England, and volunteered to fight on 21 October 1915. He trained in England for over a year and enjoyed the impression he made on people as he walked about in public wearing his soldier's uniform. He was sent to France on the last day of 1916, and within days was enduring the horrors of the front line. Wilfred Owen, the son of a railway worker, was born in Oswestry, on 18th March, 1893. Educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School, he worked as a pupil-teacher at Wyle Cop School while preparing for his matriculation exam for the University of London. After failing to win a scholarship he found work as a teacher of English in the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. From the age of nineteen Owen wanted to be a poet and immersed himself in poetry, being especially impressed by Keats and Shelley. He wrote almost no poetry of importance until he saw action in France in 1917. He was deeply attached to his mother to whom most of his 664 letters are addressed. (She saved every one.) 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.
Although he had previously thought of himself as a pacifist, in October 1915 he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles. Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, he joined the Manchester Regiment in France in January, 1917. While in France Wilfred Owen began writing poems about his war experiences.
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.
In the summer of 1917 Owen was badly concussed at the Somme after a shell landed just two yards away. After several days in a bomb crater with the mangled corpse of a fellow officer, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock.
While recovering at Craiglockhart War Hospital he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Owen showed Sassoon his poetry who advised and encouraged him. Sassoon suggested that Owen should write in a more direct, colloquial style. Over the next few months Owen wrote a series of poems, including Anthem for Doomed Youth, Disabled, Dulce et Decorum Est and Strange Meeting. Sassoon introduced Owen to H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett and helped him get some of his poems published in The Nation. Owen also had talks with William Heinemann about the publication of a...