Born: 18th March 1893 in Oswestry, Britain.
Died: 4th November 1918 in Ors, France.
Overview of Wilfred Owen's Life
A compassionate poet, Wilfred Owen's work provides the finest description and critique of the soldier's experience during World War One. He was killed towards the end of the conflict. Read his war poetry here.
Wilfred Owen's Youth
Wilfred Owen was born on March 18th 1893, to an apparently wealthy family; however, within two years his grandfather died on the verge of bankruptcy and, missing his support, the family were forced into poorer housing at Birkenhead. This fallen status left a permanent impression on Wilfred's mother, and it may have combined with her staunch piety to produce a child who was sensible, serious, and who struggled to equate his wartime experiences with Christian teachings. Owen studied well at schools in Birkenhead and, after another family move, Shrewsbury - where he even helped to teach - but he failed the University of London's entrance exam. Consequently, Wilfred became lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden - an Oxfordshire parish - under an arrangement designed so the vicar would tutor Owen for another attempt at University.
Although commentators differ as to whether Owen started writing at the age 10/11 or 17, he was certainly producing poems during his time at Dunsden; conversely, the experts agree that Owen favoured literature, as well as Botany, at school, and that his main poetic influence was Keats. The Dunsden poems exhibit the compassionate awareness so characteristic of Wilfred Owen's later war poetry, and the young poet found considerable material in the poverty and death he observed working for the church. Indeed, Wilfred Owen's written 'compassion' was often very close to morbidity.
Wilfred's service in Dunsden may have made him more aware of the poor and less fortunate, but it didn't encourage a fondness for the church: away from his mother's influence he became critical of evangelical religion and intent on a different career, that of literature. Such thoughts led to a difficult and troubled period during January 1913, when Wilfred and Dunsden's vicar appear to have argued, and - or because perhaps as a result of - Owen suffered a near nervous breakdown. He left the parish, spending the following summer recovering.
During this period of relaxation Wilfred Owen wrote what critics often label his first 'war-poem' - 'Uriconium, an Ode' - after visiting an archaeological dig. The remains were Roman, and Owen described ancient combat with especial reference to the bodies he observed being unearthed. However, he failed to gain a scholarship to university and so left England, travelling to the continent and a position teaching English at the Berlitz school in Bordeaux. Owen was to remain in France for over two years, during which time he began a collection of poetry: it was never published.
1915: Wilfed Owen Enlists in the Army
Although war seized Europe in 1914, it was only in 1915 that Owen considered the conflict to have expanded so considerably that he was needed by his country, whereupon he returned to Shrewsbury in September 1915, training as a private at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. Unlike many of the war's early recruits, the delay meant Owen was partly aware of the conflict he was entering, having visited a hospital for the wounded and having seen the carnage of modern warfare first-hand; however he still felt removed from events.
Owen moved to the Officer's school in Essex during the March of 1916 before joining the Manchester Regiment in June, where he was graded '1st Class Shot' on a special course. An application to the Royal Flying Corps was rejected, and on December 30th 1916, Wilfred traveled to France, joining the 2nd Manchesters on January 12th 1917. They were positioned near Beaumont Hamel, on the Somme.
Wilfred Owen sees Combat
Wilfred's own letters describe the following few days better than any writer or historian could hope to manage, but it is sufficient to say Owen and his men held a forward 'position', a muddy, flooded dug-out, for fifty hours as an artillery and shells raged around them. Having survived this, Owen remained active with the Manchesters, nearly getting frost bite in late January, suffering concussion in March - he fell through shell-damaged land into a cellar at Le Quesnoy-en-Santerre, earning him a trip behind the lines to hospital - and fighting in bitter combat at St. Quentin a few weeks later.
Shell Shock: Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart
It was after this latter battle, when Owen was caught in an explosion, that soldiers reported him acting rather strangely; he was diagnosed as having shell-shock and sent back to England for treatment in May. Owen arrived at the, now famous, Craiglockhart War Hospital on June 26th, an establishment sited outside Edinburgh. Over the next few months Wilfred wrote some of his finest poetry, the result of several stimuli. Owen's doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged his patient to overcome shell-shock by working hard at his poetry and editing The Hydra, Craiglockhart's magazine. Meanwhile, Owen met another patient, Siegfried Sassoon, an established poet whose recently published war work inspired Wilfred and whose encouragement guided him; the exact debt owed by Owen to Sassoon is unclear, but the former certainly improved far beyond the latter's talents.
Owen's War Poetry
In addition, Owen was exposed to the cloyingly sentimental writing and attitude of non-combatants who glorified the war, an attitude to which Wilfred reacted with fury. Further fuelled by nightmares of his wartime experiences, Owen wrote classics like 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', rich and multi-layered works characterised by a brutal honesty and deep compassion for the soldiers/victims, many of which were direct ripostes to other authors.
It's important to note that Wilfred wasn't a simple pacifist - indeed, on occasions he railed against them - but a man sensitive to the burden of soldiery. Owen may have been self-important before the war - as betrayed by his letters home from France - but there is no self-pity in his war work.