“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.
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.
La Maison Forestiere. Photo: Hektor Creative Commons
© 2013 Tish Farrell
- The Wilfred Owen Association official site
- Simon Patterson: La Maison Forestière. Dedicated to the British poet Wilfred Owen, 2011, AAJ Press
- Maison forestière d’Ors – Tourisme en Cambrésis
- Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker
- Regeneration/Behind the Lines film (1997)
- NO GLORY IN WAR 1914-18 CAMPAIGN