‘Poet’s view’ of Owen failed to cap­ture his­tor­i­cal truths

World War I was not the fu­tile tragedy it has been made out to be by a cen­tury of re­vi­sion­ism


If there was a voice of the Great War, it was the English sol­dier­poet Wil­fred Owen. Even af­ter all th­ese years, the pathos of his all­too-brief life and his death days short of the ar­mistice con­tin­ues to res­onate, just as his verse does, haunt­ing and enig­matic, shot through with wis­dom and pro­found in­con­gruity.

The easy thing to do is ac­cept what we were taught at school about Owen: that he died sense­lessly and need­lessly on No­vem­ber 4, 1918, cap­tur­ing the nar­ra­tive of a war that had been fu­tile from the start. By those stars, it was a war with no mo­ral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, no mean­ing and no clear out­come save for set­ting the scene for even greater slaugh­ter in World War II.

Owen, 25 at the time of his death, is re­mem­bered as the ar­che­typal war poet whose sear­ing ex­pe­ri­ences on the West­ern Front pro­pelled him full cir­cle, from a book­ish vicar’s as­sis­tant who vol­un­teered with the Artists’ Ri­fles to crack in­fantry of­fi­cer, sup­pos­edly fight­ing to the bit­ter end for a cause in which he no longer be­lieved. His po­etry shaped how World War I would be un­der­stood in pub­lic mem­ory.

But the real story is con­sid­er­ably more com­plex, much like the man him­self. Owen, though sick­ened by the killing and suf­fer­ing he wit­nessed, was no paci­fist. He was, in fact, a war hero who won the Mil­i­tary Cross by mow­ing down Ger­mans with a ma­chine­gun. His po­etry con­veys the ec­stasy of fight­ing as well as the hor­rors of dy­ing in bat­tle.

To read Dulce et Deco­rum Est is the clos­est you would ever want to come to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a poi­son gas at­tack in the trenches, to “hear, at ev­ery jolt, the blood / Come gar­gling from the froth-cor­rupted lungs / Ob­scene as cancer, bit­ter as the cud”. Yet Owen also con­jures up a peace­ful Eng­land, a place worth the sac­ri­fice he would ul­ti­mately make. The nu­ance of the mes­sage is what makes his po­etry so pow­er­ful. This is the thing that has been lost, though, in the myth-mak­ing about his life and be­liefs.

The de­bate over Owen’s legacy and that of the World War I po­ets, prom­i­nent among them his friend, men­tor and fel­low sol­dier Siegfried Sas­soon, who begged him not to re­turn to the front in that fi­nal blood-soaked sum­mer of the war, has run through the rolling cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tions that cul­mi­nate to­mor­row with spe­cial Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies here, in Bri­tain and France.

Bri­tish his­to­rian and best­selling author Max Hast­ings set the scene in 2014, the 100th an­niver­sary of the out­break of hos­til­i­ties, by re­pu­di­at­ing the “poet’s view” that the war had never been worth wag­ing. This was not a crit­i­cism of Owen or his time-tested work. Rather, Hast­ings took aim at the re­vi­sion­ism that gave rise to the no­tion that the war was one vast, use­less, fu­tile tragedy “wor­thy to be re­mem­bered only as pitiable mis­take”.

Writ­ing in Catas­tro­phe, his ac­count of how Eu­rope went to war in 1914, Hast­ings said: “The ‘poet’s view’, that the al­leged mer­its of the al­lied cause be­come mean­ing­less amid the hor­rors of the strug­gle and the brutish in­com­pe­tence of many commanders, has been al­lowed dras­ti­cally to dis­tort mod­ern per­cep­tions. Many Bri­tish vet­er­ans in their life­times de­plored the sup- po­si­tion that Wil­fred Owen or Siegfried Sas­soon spoke for their gen­er­a­tion.”

David Reynolds, the Cam­bridge his­to­rian whose book and TV doc­u­men­tary, Long Shadow, ex­plored the im­pact of World War I on the cen­tury it shaped, said great po­etry made bad his­tory: Owen’s work had been rein­ter­preted and, yes, reimag­ined in a con­text far re­moved from that in which he served.

The young man’s best known po­etry was pro­duced in 1917-18 when he was a lieu­tenant with the Manch­esters, a reg­i­ment that had suf­fered ter­ri­bly in the Somme of­fen­sives in 1916. Owen was a some­what pre­cious in­di­vid­ual who, af­ter toy­ing with re­li­gious vo­ca­tion as the un­paid right hand to a Church of Eng­land vicar, had spent the open­ing years of the war be­hind the lines in France teach­ing English and tu­tor­ing the sons of a well-to-do Catholic fam­ily.

En­list­ment through the Artists’ Ri­fles re­flected his early think­ing: the poet came be­fore the war­rior, though he was un­pub­lished and, truth be told, not es­pe­cially promis­ing as a word­smith. Clearly, the hard-nosed Manch­esters sharp­ened him up. He led his men with brav­ery and clear-eyed ruth­less­ness. Few had a shorter life ex­pectancy than a ju­nior in­fantry of­fi­cer on ei­ther side of the Great War.

It’s cu­ri­ous how the paths of the English war po­ets in­ter­sected. Sas­soon, their avun­cu­lar stan­dard bearer, met the ide­al­is­tic Ru­pert Brooke be­fore he em­barked for Gal­lipoli in 1915. To para­phrase his best-known poem, Brooke made that “cor­ner of a for­eign field … for­ever Eng­land” by dy­ing of an in­fected in­sect bite while wait­ing to go into ac­tion.

Sas­soon’s sol­dier­ing, as with his po­etry, was al­to­gether more hard- bit­ten. His men called him “Mad Jack”, such was his reck­less brav­ery. Rec­om­mended for the Vic­to­ria Cross, he once took on a trench full of 60 Ger­mans. Af­ter they scat­tered, he calmly sat down and read the book of po­ems he car­ried in his pack. Like Owen, he was an of­fi­cer with the MC to his name.

Suf­fer­ing shell shock, Owen had been sent home to con­va­lesce af­ter the or­deal in the mud at Pass­chen­daele in 1917, while Sas­soon had been de­clared un­fit for ser­vice for re­fus­ing to re­turn to the front and re­leas­ing his “sol­dier’s protest” to the press. They worked on po­etry to­gether at Craiglock­hart War Hos­pi­tal near Ed­in­burgh, Sas­soon’s in­flu­ence ev­i­dent in hand­writ­ten notes on the orig­i­nal drafts of some of his friend’s sig­na­ture works, in­clud­ing An­them for Doomed Youth.

Here, the truth be­lies the ac­cepted nar­ra­tive: de­spite Sas­soon’s pleas — he even threat­ened to stab Owen in the leg at one point — Owen de­cided to go back. This was not the act of a re­signed ni­hilist or con­firmed vic­tim. Rather, Owen felt he owed it to his men, and pos­si­bly to his coun­try.

In the same vein, his po­etry scorns ready as­sump­tions. Dulce et Deco­rum Est sar­don­ically bor­rows its ti­tle from Ho­race, gen­er­ally trans­lated from the Latin as mean­ing “it’s sweet and proper to die for one’s coun­try”, to re­but the jin­go­is­tic clap­trap that pop­ulist “po­ets” were churn­ing out for Fleet Street. Owen’s vivid an­swer was to de­scribe the death of a man from gassing.

The po­etry of the Great War was re­dis­cov­ered in the 1960s as pub­lish­ers pro­duced an­tholo­gies to mark the 50th an­niver­sary. But a new gen­er­a­tion came at it through the tinted lens of World War II — an eas­ier war to cat­e­gorise as worth fight­ing be­cause of the evil of the Nazis and bru­tal­ity of the Ja­panese — and the very real night­mare of a nu­clear World War III.

Viet­nam was seen to give fresh mean­ing to the fu­til­ity — that word again — of trench war­fare. But as Reynolds points out, the Owen of pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion was a dis­tant re­la­tion to Wil­fred Owen the man or Lieu­tenant Owen the com­mit­ted sol­dier. “Great po­etry, bad his­tory be­cause the an­tholo­gies took a few sol­dier po­ets as the authen­tic voices of war, and por­trayed them mov­ing along a kind of po­etic learn­ing curve from the in­no­cent pa­tri­o­tism of Ru­pert Brooke to the bleak pity of … Owen,” the his­to­rian says.

What of our sol­dier-po­ets? Gal­lipoli vet­eran Leon Gellert is prob­a­bly the best known of them, author of the well-re­ceived 1917 vol­ume of verse, Songs of a Cam­paign. Charles Bean, the of­fi­cial war cor­re­spon­dent who be­came keeper of the An­zac flame, also edited an an­thol­ogy of sol­diers’ po­ems and short sto­ries that sold more than 100,000 copies.

But Owen and Sas­soon proved to be tough acts to fol­low. “They set a stan­dard of ex­cep­tional po­etry which po­ets in the sec­ond world war re­ferred to as un­achiev­able, and which also crowded out Aus­tralian war po­ets,” says Christina Spit­tel, a se­nior lec­turer with the Univer­sity of NSW who spe­cialises in war lit­er­a­ture. “If … you asked peo­ple in the street about the names of war po­ets, I don’t think they would come up with Leon Gellert, un­for­tu­nately.”

Diplo­mat Iain Smith, who writes war po­etry and songs as Fred Smith, cites Owen as an in­spi­ra­tion but not an in­flu­ence. Smith was the first Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade of­fi­cial to go in with Aus­tralian troops in Afghanistan and the last to leave.

He sees par­al­lels be­tween his war ex­pe­ri­ence and that of Owen, whom he read at school. “Like Owen, I went back be­cause I felt uniquely placed to doc­u­ment what was go­ing on, to tell the story,” Smith says. “In do­ing so, I for­feited ca­reer ad­vance­ment and post­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties; he for­feited his life.”

Owen, though sick­ened by the killing and suf­fer­ing he wit­nessed, was no paci­fist. He was a war hero who won the Mil­i­tary Cross by mow­ing down Ger­mans with a ma­chine­gun

Siegfried Sas­soon

Wil­fred Owen

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