One of my all time favorite books is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. In it, Fussell looks at the World War I through the eyes of the hyper-literate soldier poets and writers whose names we still recognize today: Rupert Brooks, who died before his fellow literary artists began to realize that the war was merely a giant hopper for bodies; Robert Graves, who survived by viewing the war as a farce and a play; Siegfried Sassoon, who entered as an idealist and left as a grim, anti-War voice; and Wilfred Owen, who found war horrifying and then, when given the opportunity to leave, insisted on going back to become a war hero. It is Wilfred Owen about whom I write today, since there is a very moving article about him in The Telegraph:
It is true that he was not among the first to answer the call to bash the Boche. Indeed, he seems to have been a rather fey and precious young man, first as a vicar’s assistant in Berkshire, and then as an English teacher in France.
When he finally decided to join the Army (through the Artists’ Rifles, to fit with his own idea of himself as a poet, despite the fact that he was unpublished, and, frankly, not very good, either) he was repulsed by the coarseness of the men among whom he found himself.
But his letters to his mother – our main source of information about his life – show how much he changed. Initial distaste at the vulgarity of the sweaty, noisy men among whom he was obliged to live became a genuine love.
The vital event was the horrific experience of having to take shelter from German artillery fire on the side of a railway embankment. Owen was trapped there for days, lying amid the remains of a popular fellow officer. It triggered shell-shock.
The most remarkable aspect of Owen’s stay at the hospital, though, is the fact that he emerged not merely as the author of some of the most stunning poetry of the 20th century – and the voice of a generation – but that he was also determined to return to the front line.
Sassoon begged him not to go, and even threatened, at one point, to stab him in the leg to prevent him doing so.
But Owen would not be deterred, and the man who returned to France was a superb soldier. In one attack, in which he captured a German machine post and scores of prisoners almost single-handed, he writes to his mother with the extraordinary expression that he “fought like an angel”. The events earned him a Military Cross.
The last letter home, written at the end of October 1918, describes how he is sheltering with his men in the cellar of a forester’s cottage in northern France, before an attempt to cross the canal that marked the front line.
Crammed into the smoky fug – he says he can hardly see by the light of a candle only 12 inches away – the men are laughing, sleeping, smoking or peeling potatoes. “It is a great life,” he writes joyfully, and goes on, “you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”
Utterly wrong, then, to think of him as some sanctimonious hand-wringer. The paradox of Owen – that he had become a first-rate warrior while abominating war – is what gives his poems their unique strength.
And yet Owen did not live to see peace himself. After sheltering in the cellar, he and his men were deployed to the banks of the canal, at Ors. In the early morning of November 4, 1918, they were given the order to storm the canal, in the face of withering German machine-gun fire. Owen never reached the other side.
Seven days later, as his mother stood listening to the church bells peeling for the end of the war, she received the dreadful telegram with the news that her precious son was dead.
I think many in our military today would understand how Owen managed to have fear and a joyous camaraderie living side by side within him. My Dad, who fought at Crete, El Alamein and all over North Africa for five years, still looked back on his service during WWII as the best days of his life. They were the worst days, too, and came back to haunt him when he was dying, since the hallucinations always focused on key battles, but I don’t think he ever felt as alive, involved and engaged as he did surrounded by his brothers in arms.
Incidentally, if you would like to read Owen’s most famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, you can see an annotated copy here.