‘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