FIRST WORLD WAR: Wilfred Owen - poetry born out of human misery


Rebecca Cole

WILFRED Owen is one of the most famous and widely acclaimed voices of the First World War.

And he just happens to be the man who got me hooked on poetry while studying for my English A-Level.

The horrific experience of war depicted in Owen’s work has stayed with me since the first time I read arguably his best-known poem Dulce et Decorum Est which critiques “the old lie”: it is a sweet and honourable thing to die for one’s country.

But the dark and devastating world Owen invites the reader to enter could not be further from the place he began life: Plas Wilmot in Weston Lane, Oswestry – a comfortable home in a rural idyll.

He was born there in 1893, the eldest of Tom and Susan Owen’s four children, before spending much of his youth in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury where he was educated.

It is believed he discovered his vocation during a holiday in Cheshire.

From 1913, he taught English and French in Bordeaux and when war broke out he considered joining the French army but eventually returned to England.

His first experience of active service left him with shell-shock which featured heavily in his hauntingly evocative work and took him to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.

It was here he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, one of his literary heroes who was instrumental in developing Owen’s talent, and wrote many of his best-known poems.

The Oswestry man returned to the Western Front in the Summer of 1918 and, after taking part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in October, was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his bravery and leadership.

But on November 4, agonisingly close to the end of the war, he was killed while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors.He was just 25 years old.

The devastating news reached his parents one week later on Armistice Day.

His own death perfectly illustrates the pity of war which he strove to highlight in much of his work, the majority of which was little known at the time with only four of his poems being published during his lifetime.

But his name is now synonymous with the First World War and it seems neither can be mentioned without reference to the other, and his work now forms part of the literary canon taught in schools and universities across the world.

From those poems which focused on the ones who survived – Disabled and Mental Cases – to those who were not so “lucky” – Anthem for Doomed Youth and Futility.

The haunting lines of Owen’s poems come back to me whenever I think of war and I can still recite the closing stanzas of ‘Dulce’ off by heart.

Wilfred Owen - an 'Oswestrian' through and through

“Wilfred Owen was an Oswestry man, born and bred.”

That is the claim made by many fans of the poet’s work, including John Waine, Oswestry businessman and bookworm, who proudly asserts the local connection.

Despite spending only a few short years at his family home near the town, Mr Waine claims this is where “his imagination forms”.

He explained his fascination with the poet: “I was completely taken by his life and work.

“How someone comes from a small rural town and becomes the figure he did is incredible, something us Oswestrians should be proud of.”

Mr Waine describes Owen as a “modern young man” and “contemporary thinker” who is undoubtedly still relevant today.

“Whenever we talk about the First World War his name is mentioned.”

Owen’s family were certainly well known in Oswestry with his grandfather, Edward Shaw, once the mayor.

As a baby he was Christened at Oswestry’s Holy Trinity Church, where his parents married, and the family owned an ironmongers on Bailey Street.

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