Born on 18th March 1893 in Plas Wilmot near Oswestry in Shropshire, Wilfred Owen would eventually become one of the most famous war poets in the English language. His poetry is now most certainly the most widely read and studied within this genre and forms the introduction to the First World War for many individuals.
Wilfred was the oldest of four children, a sister Mary and two brothers, Colin and Harold, all born to Tom Owen and his wife Susan. Until Wilfred was four, the family lived in reasonable comfort in a house belonging to his maternal grandfather, Edward Shaw, a former mayor of the town. However, upon Shaw’s death, it was discovered that he was virtually bankrupt, so the Owens moved to smaller lodgings in Birkenhead, where Wilfred attended the Birkenhead Institute, developing into an earnest and slightly arrogant young man. Throughout his childhood, Owen was greatly influenced by his mother Susan, who firmly believed that her eldest child would one day restore the family fortune.
In 1907 the family moved to Shrewsbury, when Tom Owen was appointed Assistant Superintendent of the Joint Railways. The family’s living conditions improved and Wilfred now attended the Shrewsbury Technical School, where he studied hard, developing his interest in literature and especially the poetry of Keats.
Owen sat and passed the qualifying examination for London University in 1911. Unfortunately, his parents could not afford the fees and Owen had not qualified for a scholarship, so instead he took up the position of assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire, in return for which he received additional tuition. However, this proved to be an unhappy time for Owen, who found his religious beliefs sorely tested in this poor parish, especially in the absence of his influential mother. By February 1913, Owen had returned to Shrewsbury and went on to sit for a scholarship at Reading University. Upon failing, however, he gave up on the idea of a university education.
Owen needed to earn a living so he travelled to France where he became an English teacher, initially in Berlitz and then in the Pyrenees, where he became the private tutor to a wealthy family. When the First World War began in August 1914, Owen made no attempt to return home, writing to his mother that he believed his role in the war was to perpetuate the English language. It would be a year before Owen returned to enlist in the Artists’ Rifles in October 1915 and, following months of training, he was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment in June 1916. Owen finally arrived back in France in December 1916, in the middle of the coldest winter of the war.
On March 13th 1917, Owen fell into a cellar and, although he initially thought he had just banged his head, he was actually concussed and was hospitalised for two weeks. At the beginning of April, in heavy fighting around Savy Wood near St Quentin, Owen was caught up in shell fire and spent several days in a shell hole, surrounded by the dismembered remains of a fellow officer. When Owen’s Battalion was relieved on 21st April, it was noticed that his speech was confused and he was shaking. He was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and was eventually sent to Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh, where he remained for four months.
While at Craiglockhart, Owen met a fellow patient, Siegfried Sassoon and the two soon became friends, after an initially awkward first meeting. The shy, stammering Owen was somewhat in awe of the decorated war hero Sassoon, but the latter agreed to look at some of Owen’s poetry and perceived a natural talent in a few of his pieces. The more experienced poet encouraged his young protégé, even to the point where the manuscript for one of Owen’s most famous poems, Anthem for Doomed Youth, contains several amendments in Sassoon’s handwriting.
Under Sassoon’s influence, Owen began to write some of his most famous war poems and was also introduced to many literary figures including Robert Graves, Robbie Ross and H G Wells. Owen was declared fit for light duties, leaving Craiglockhart in October 1917, bound for Scarborough. He did not return to France until the end of August 1918, having already begun work on the publication of his first volume of poetry.
In October 1918, Owen was awarded the Military Cross. The citation read:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.”
On the morning of November 4th, Owen was shot and killed while attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal. A week later, the Armistice was signed and hostilities ceased. As the church bells began to ring all over England, Tom and Susan awaited news of their beloved eldest son, when the telegram arrived, informing them of his death.
Owen is buried in the tiny Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Ors.