Wilfred Edward Salter Owen
Born: 18 March 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire
Died: 4 November 1918 in Ors, France (aged 25)
Son of Tom Owen and Susan Shaw
Follow us Twitter: Soflay_inc
Wilfred Owen was raised in a greatly religious family and he was the eldest of four children. He was educated at the Birkenhead Institute before moving to Shrewsbury. He was unsuccessful in winning a scholarship at the University of London and so he worked as a teaching assistant and unpaid lay assistant with his local church parish. Owen then moved to France and worked as a language tutor in Bordeaux.
Owen began writing poetry as a teenager and idolised Keats and Shelley. In his spare time, he began preparing a book of his early poems, Minor Poems- in Minor Keys- By a Minor, with his own poems modeled on those of Keats. However, this book was never published.
A year after the outbreak of World War I, in 1915, Owen returned to England to enlist for service in the British Army. He joined the Artists Rifles and here, met fellow poet Edward Thomas. He was then commissioned into the Manchester Regiment with whom he went to the front line in January 1917. Within two weeks of arriving in France, he became a platoon commander.
Like most soldiers, trench warfare quickly made an impression on Owen and he suffered deeply with the horror of war. This is reflected in his poems written after January 1917; full of anger at the brutality soldiers were faced with, and pity for his fallen comrades and brothers-in-arms. Owen used his poetry to speak the truth of the revulsion of war at the front line.
In June 1917, Owen spent several days in a hole next to a corpse after being blown into the air by a shell on The Somme. At first, it was thought he had a brain concussion but he was diagnosed with shell-shock and sent to recover at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh. His poems The Sentry and Exposure provide striking details of this event.
Owen spent four months at Craiglockhart, where he met fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, a soldier poet who had become particularly disillusioned about the war. They shared their feelings of war, soldiering and poetry. Sassoon, already published, became a mentor to Owen and reformed Owen’s style. Sassoon also introduced Owen to other prominent soldier-poets including Robert Graves and H.G. Wells.
During his time at Craiglockhart, Owen became an editor of the hospital magazine, Hydra, where he anonymously published two of his own poems, Song of Songs and The Next War; the first of his poems to be seen in print.
Owen was discharged from Craiglockhart in November 1917 and he stayed in England on home duty, while advocates endeavoured to find him staff jobs. In July 1918, Owen decided to return to the front line after Sassoon had been wounded; viewing his efforts as duty to the cause of supporting his men as well as maintaining a strong voice on the ground to speak about the true atrocities of the war.
During the final stages of the war, Owen was promoted to company commander. In October 1918, Owen showed gallantry, courage, and great leadership in a fierce battle in Joncourt for which he was awarded the Military Cross. He was most pleased with this for the credibility it would bring to his poetry.
On the 4th November 1918, just one week before the end of the war, Wilfred Owen was killed in action while leading his men across the Sambre Canal at Ors. News of his death reached his parents on Armistice Day.
The soldier-poet community was particularly devastated by the loss of Owen. In 1920, Sassoon published Poems, Owen’s single volume of poems which contain some of the most poignant poetry of the war.
Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery in Northern France. He is one of sixteen poets of the Great War commemorated at Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey. Several plaques and memorials have been placed at locations of relevance in Great Britain, including a small museum dedicated to Owen and Sassoon at Craiglockhart Hospital, now a building in Edinburgh University.
In his lifetime, Owen was virtually unknown as a poet but his legacy helped advance poetry into the Modernist era. He is widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest war poets. His powerful descriptive talent paints vivid and terrifying pictures with graphic scenes and brutally honest emotions which highlight his anger at the cruelty of war and pity for its victims.
Wilfred Owen Quotes:
“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity”.
“All a poet can do today is warn”.
“Never fear: Thank Home, and Poetry, and the Force behind both”.
British Library bl.uk
Edinburgh Napier University
Copyright © Anna Fletcher & SoflayiNC