The Reality of War - Wilfred Owen


by Wilfred Owen, one who was there

PROBABLY THE MOST FAMOUS of First World War Poets, Wilfred Owen was initially a pacifist, but driven by guilt, he volunteered in 1915 and joined the army as a lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment. He was posted to France on the last day of 1916 with the Lancashire Fusiliers and was soon involved in the battle of the Somme. Up to this time his poetry had been unremarkable, but he was determined to become a poet after the war.  In his new uniform, like thousands of other young men, he was full of boyish enthusiasm for his forthcoming adventures and was soon embroiled in the gruesome adventure of blood, gore, mud and the horror of life in the trenches. His opinions soon altered. He wrote home to his mother: ‘The people of England needn’t hope; they must agitate.’ (10 June, 1917).

Eventually, he was wounded. He was blown up; he was concussed; he suffered trench-fever and was sent home to recover in hospital near Edinburgh. It was here that he met Siegfried Sassoon, another war poet, who encouraged him to continue with his poetry. And soon he was keen to return to the trenches in France. He told his brother: ‘I know I shall be killed, but it’s the only place I can make my protest felt.’  And in April, 1918, he was back in the front line.  On 31st October, 1918, he wrote to his mother what transpired to be his last letter. The Germans were in retreat. The French people were welcoming English soldiers jubilantly. They all sensed the war was nearly over and tensions were relaxed. Wilfred wrote: ‘It is a good life. I am more obvious, dear mother, than you are of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells....of this I am certain; you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surrounds me...  A few days later, on the 4th November, exactly one week before the Armistice, Wilfred Owen was shot and killed in the village of Ors. His parents received the telegram informing them of his death just a week after war ended.

Owen’s poems did not glorify war. That was never his intention. He wished to portray the pity of war; not the glory.  But he did write of his real-life experiences and did not pull any punches. Based on a gas attack in which a friend died, probably his most moving poem was DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI, which are the first words from a poem by Horace and translate to, ’It is sweet and right to die for your country,’ a sentiment which Owen called ‘the old lie.’


Wilfred Owen 1893 - 1918

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 the face;

His hanging face, like a devil’s, sick of sin,

If you could hear at every jolt, the blood

Come gurgling 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

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est.

                  Pro patria mori.

Ron Dale.