Undervalued in his home county? Great War Poet Wilfred Owen – a true Shropshire Lad 1893-1918

“It is fitting and sweet to die for one’s country” Horace, Ode III

*

“Dulce et Decorum Est “ 
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie:
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

*

Wilfred Owen has been described as the greatest of the Great War poets.  He surely was, although in terms of the brutal brevity of his career,  it is a dubious honour. The young officer who wrote this poem  was killed  as he led his raiding party from the Manchester Regiment across the Sambre-Oise Canal on 4th November 1918. At the time, he was twenty five years old and only four of his poems had been published. One week later the war ended. His mother received news of his death in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, just as bells of the county town’s churches were ringing out in joyous celebration of peace. It is hard to imagine the pain of that moment.

Owen, though, believed it was the duty of a poet to tell the truth, to show how it was for the men – this “Pity of War”. He did not have to return to the front after being treated for shell shock in Craiglockhart Military Hospital in 1917. But  it was while he was receiving treatment here that he met fellow  inmate, Siegfried Sassoon, who became his mentor, and encouraged the young poet to write of the cruel realities of war.

In August 1918  Owen chose to return to the front. In the following October  he won the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line. And of course he did tell the truth, and in stark, excoriating detail.

*

Wilfred Owen was born and spent his early childhood in Oswestry, Shropshire on the Welsh border, in a gracious villa, Plas Wilmot, owned by his maternal grandfather, Edward Shaw.  He was the eldest of four children. His father, Tom Owen, was a railway official, a job that took the family for a time to  Birkenhead on the Wirral in Cheshire.

Plas Wilmot, Owen’s birthplace. Photo: Oswestry Family and Local History Group

*

In 1906 the Owens returned to Shropshire, this time to the county town of Shrewsbury where Wilfred attended Shrewsbury Technical School, now the Wakeman School. His last years of education were spent as a pupil-teacher as he struggled to study and win a scholarship to university. In this he failed, and although he won a place at Reading University his parents could not afford to send him. Instead, between 1913 and 1915 when he enlisted, he was went to work as a teacher in France.

Market Square, Shrewsbury

The Square in Shrewsbury c 1909

*

The house of his birth is privately owned,  and it was only last year, after lobbying by civic groups and historians that it was also given a grade 2 listing by English Heritage; this amid fears of development on the site. In August this year the surrounding gardens were put up for sale with outlined planning permission for the building of seven detached houses on three sides of Owen’s former home. Many have urged that the house and its gardens should be left intact, hoping that one day there might be a museum here. For it is a sad fact that while Wilfred Owen is known of in Shropshire, he is given only scant commemoration.

Yet Wilfred Owen’s words speak to the whole world, for all humanity, a fact recognised at least in France where in the village of Ors, where Owen died,  they have commissioned Turner prize nominee, Simon Patterson, to transform La Maison Forestiere (The Forester’s House) into a wonderful place of contemplation and commemoration of Owen’s work. More than this, it is a place to acknowledge the futility of war. It was in this house on 31st October 1918 that Wilfred Owen wrote the last letter to his mother. A few days later he was dead, joining the millions of others lost in the vicious cull of youthful talent and potential.  Those of us who come after can only wonder if the full cost of this loss has even now been fully reckoned.

You can see more about La Maison Forestiere in the links below, and a brief biography in the short video at the end.

File:Ors maison wilfred owen.jpg

La Maison Forestiere. Photo: Hektor Creative Commons

© 2013 Tish Farrell

FRIZZTEXT’S ‘UUU’ CHALLENGE

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14 thoughts on “Undervalued in his home county? Great War Poet Wilfred Owen – a true Shropshire Lad 1893-1918

  1. you’ve written a great tribute to Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), the war poet, and it is sad, that there nowadays are still gas wars (Syria), gas developing centers (in USA, UK, Germany etc.), selling military gas into war regions etc.

  2. I can’t help but wonder who would want to read such poetry, regardless of how well it is written. Seems to me that those who’ve fought in a war… or wars, wouldn’t want to be reminded. But who knows… maybe there are some out there who were unable to tell it themselves, and found some consolation in the descriptions of the poet. It’s a very painful subject.

    1. I agree with you, Shimon, with my reader’s hat on. I certainly don’t sit down and read the war poets for pleasure. But with my historian’s hat on, these poets were witnesses, and at the moment there’s a certain tendency in the UK to glorify WW1. Politicians had a lot to answer for in WW1. They have a lot to answer for now, and so that’s why I think we should know what people like Wilfred Owen experienced. And yes, as you say, he did speak for others who could not speak – millions on both sides in fact, since soldiers were not supposed to keep diaries and their letters were heavily censored. But I agree, it is very painful subject.

  3. Hi,
    I am a final year student at the Colombo International School, Colombo, Sri Lanka and a student of A Level Literature. I have been a fan of First World War poetry and novels from a very young age.

    I have just published a book titled “Fighters and Dreamers:The Friendship of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen 1917-1919 and Beyond”.

    This work is an exploration of one of the most famous and most important literary friendships, for although tragically brief, their friendship left behind writing that is at once thought-provoking, shocking, compassionate and very relevant. The printed book is being distributed free of charge.

    The book will be appreciated by fans of the two poets and anyone interested in war poetry.

    The book is posted in its entirety on my website https://ramathi.wordpress.com/ and the PDF version can be downloaded, free of charge.

    http://ramathi.wordpress.com/download-my-book/

    1. This is an excellent piece of work, Ramathi. Well done, you, for all the hard work and thought that has gone into the making of this book. You also write very crisply and clearly. I like the assured tone of your writer’s voice.

  4. This is a good piece of work. A couple of points though. The Owen’s went from Plas Wilmot to Shrewsbury then to Birkenhead returning to Shrewsbury in 1907. After his Wyle Cop School experience Wilfred was a parish assistant in South Oxfordshire before going to teach in the Berlitz school in Bordeaux.

    The listing of Plas Wilmot wasn’t so much a matter of ‘lobbying’ as of making an application. Why wasn’t it done before I wonder? I tried to set the ball rolling ages ago but didn’t really get anywhere and ended up having to make the application myself. Anyway English HEritage say it is the most important place in Wilfred’s development – so Oswestry has no need to be so bashful. There are a couple of films on Youtube about Plas Wilmot and also one about Wilfred in Shrewsbury.

    1. Many thanks for your comments and the extra info. Wilfred’s timeline seems to come in various versions so thank you for clearing that up. As to listing, yes, I now gather that anyone can ask for a building to be listed. So good on you for doing it. I guess people simply assume that buildings with such associations are protected. Silly us!

  5. Heading to Shrewsbury in a month and a half… and then on to Oswestry. Thanks for the wonderful news about the French memorial… I plan on making a special visit to check that out.

    I truly enjoy your voice, Tish! Keep ’em coming.

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