Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, the eldest of four children, was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, where his father was working as a railway clerk. The family soon had to move to Birkenhead, and Wilfred was educated at the independent Birkenhead Institute until 1907, when his father was appointed to a senior post in Shrewsbury. Wilfred took a four-year, free course as a pupil-teacher at the Shrewsbury Technical School, gaining not only a good grounding in French, English literature, the earth sciences and other subjects but also experience of teaching children from very poor homes. Studying Wordsworth and Keats made him long to be a poet, and he started writing verse. He qualified as an elementary school teacher, but career prospects were poor, so he decided to try for a London University external degree, passing the first stage, matriculation, in 1911.
Needing time and space to prepare for more exams, he became a temporary assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden, near Reading. His mother had brought him up to be a pious Evangelical, but he lost his faith at Dunsden, returning home early in 1913 with a severe breakdown. Later that year he left home for good, becoming a teacher of English in Bordeaux. He shared the general view in 1914-15 that the war was in a just cause, and in autumn 1915 he returned to England to join the Artists’ Rifles, a prestigious officer training unit. In June 1916 he became a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment.
In January 1917 Owen arrived on the Western Front, at the northern end of the Somme sector. Most of his later poems are based on his experiences during the next four months. Conditions were appalling: bitter cold, incessant rain, deep mud, obliterated trenches, constant shelling. ‘His first, worst ordeal is described in his vivid letters and in his later poem, ‘The Sentry’. The weather turned to intense frost (‘Exposure’, ‘Futility’). Eventually, after being blown into the air by a shell while asleep and coming to among the scattered remains of another officer, he was sent to a shellshock centre (‘Mental Cases’) and then, in June, to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh.
Owen was lucky at Craiglockhart. He was assigned to exactly the right doctor, Arthur Brock, and became friendly with Siegfried Sassoon. Until he met Sassoon in mid-August he had not written any of the poems for which he is now famous: his few war poems had been patriotic and heroic. Sassoon had been persuaded by civilian pacifists that the fighting could be ended by negotiation, and his own poetry was a furious protest against the continuation of the war. Owen’s thoughts and style changed dramatically: by October he was writing poems such as ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ .
In November Owen was sent on light duties to Scarborough. He began to break away from Sassoon’s almost overwhelming influence, reading other wartime poets – including Graves (whom he had met through Sassoon) and Gibson – and reflecting on his ‘job’, his ‘duty’ as a poet. Like Sassoon, he wanted to speak for the troops, but his strong allegiance to the great Romantics gave him a wider view. Some of his 1918 poems ‘Insensibility’, ‘Strange Meeting’, ‘Spring Offensive’ and others – are among the greatest poems about war in the language.
In spring 1918 Owen was sent to a camp at Ripon to get fit for active service. At the end of August he returned to France. He took part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line, winning a Military Cross for turning a captured machine gun on the enemy. On 4 November, in the last battle of the war, he was killed while his battalion was trying to cross the Oise-Sambre canal at Ors. He is buried in the village cemetery.
Dominic Hibberd, August 2004.
- Oxford DNB Online biography: Jon Stallworthy, “Owen, Wilfred Edward Salter (1893–1918),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004), http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37828 ©Oxford University Press 2004–5. (Password required.)
- Collected Poems and Fragments, ed. Jon Stallworthy (1983)
- Collected Letters, ed. Harold Owen and John Bell (1967)
- Selected Letters, ed. John Bell (second ed., 1998).
- Biographies by Jon Stallworthy (1974) and Dominic Hibberd (1992 and 2002)
- Dennis Welland, Wilfred Owen: a critical study (1960)
- Desmond Graham, The Truth of War: Owen, Blunden and Rosenberg (1983)
- Dominic Hibberd, Owen the Poet (1986)
- Douglas Kerr, Wilfred Owen’s Voices (1993)