Politics & Policy

Life and Death in the Trenches

The toll — and legacy — of the Great War.

Today, we celebrate Memorial Day. In the light of this commemoration, we might once again consider World War I and its legacy. As chroniclers of the period have noted, in addition to our political inheritance from the Great War — including the present-day Middle East — that war yielded one of the highest death tolls in history. It also yielded some extraordinary British poetry, even as many of its creators would number among the dead. To bring that war out of the shadow of forgetfulness in which it is sometimes shrouded and to help recall the lost promise of almost an entire generation, Guy Cuthbertson’s biography Wilfred Owen is to be highly recommended. Cuthbertson provides a fresh and insightful portrait of one of the most famous British war poets and corrects some false impressions that have become attached to him.

As war broke out across Europe, in the luminous, still summer of 1914, England mobilized its equally luminous youth. During the course of the war, the British Empire deployed approximately 5.4 million men to fight on the Western Front.

Wilfred Owen was one of them — and he was also one of that small but notable group of British soldier-poets whose artistry and bravery improbably coalesced and came to fruition in the trenches of Europe. In addition to Owen, this group included Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg. In this sympathetic biography, the author describes Wilfred Owen’s development from a child in a lower-middle-class family in Edwardian England into a modern poet who would win the admiration and friendship of those well beyond his modest roots.

Little about young Wilfred Owen hinted at the soldier-poet he would become. Cuthbertson tells us that, growing up, Owen was very much a “mama’s boy” and not a particularly inspired student. His classroom performance was mostly without distinction, and he was unable to obtain the scholarship he would have needed to attend university. Owen would not live to be much older than a university student, for he was killed in action at age 25, a week before the Armistice was declared. Indeed, news of his death was delivered to his family in Shrewsbury even as the bells were ringing throughout Great Britain in celebration of the war’s end on Armistice Day itself.

Shrewsbury was one of several somewhat provincial towns that Owen’s family lived in during his childhood, whose confines helped form him and from which, according to Cuthbertson, he wanted to flee. In fact, in 1913 Owen moved to Bordeaux, France, where he taught English and gained some independence from his family and social milieu. Ultimately, with the Great War already well underway, he returned to England and, eventually, in October 1915, he joined the 28th Battalion of the London Regiment, an Officers’ Training Corps known as the Artists’ Rifles, and was commissioned a second lieutenant. Cuthbertson reminds us that, in late and post-Edwardian England, membership in the officer class was a status much more easily attained in wartime than in peacetime for young men such as Wilfred Owen — those of humble roots and without a university degree. Indeed, throughout the biography, Cuthbertson underscores Owen’s unrealized hopes of attending a great university, particularly Oxford, and this sense of having been excluded from a coveted rite of passage available to many of his literary peers is a critical leitmotif of Owen’s brief life. Nevertheless, Owen would arguably go on to write better poetry than many of his university-educated peers.

In the century since his death, Wilfred Owen’s poetry has been rightly celebrated, if sometimes mischaracterized as purely pacifist poetry.

In the century since his death, Wilfred Owen’s poetry has been rightly celebrated, if sometimes mischaracterized as purely pacifist poetry. Cuthbertson effectively addresses such mischaracterization.

In one of his best-known poems, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Owen laments the early deaths of “these who die as cattle” in the trenches, but his subject is the war and more than war; his subject is the manner of the soldiers’ deaths and more than death. As Cuthbertson remarks of the poem, “So often quoted . . . so often treated as a straightforward cry against the war, this is in fact no such thing. . . . The pity for the soldiers is there, the sorrow at the slaughter, but it is not a declaration against the war. . . . Ultimately, the poem’s concern is religious and aesthetic: it asks for beauty, it asks for bells, orisons, choirs, prayers, candles and flowers. The lives of the men in uniform are worthy of beauty.” Similarly, in “Miners,” a poem inspired by a British mining disaster but evocative of the war because of the role miners played in digging wartime tunnels and the lethal risks those miners faced, Cuthbertson notes, “Owen is not simply thinking of miners in Staffordshire or the Western Front: the poem has embraced everyman who served in the trenches.”

In refuting the unnuanced epitaph of the pacifist poet, Cuthbertson presents a more complex Wilfred Owen, who, while loathing the war, would also be awarded the Military Cross for bravery. Like the speaker in Yeats’s poem “Politics” — who asks, “How can I, that girl standing there, / My attention fix / On Roman or on Russian / Or on Spanish politics?” – Owen is more absorbed by human experience than by its politics. The experience he faithfully portrays in his poetry is, however, that of the soldiers’ suffering and its horror, which leaves his poetry vulnerable to easy political and ideological interpretation. Cuthbertson usefully cites Philip Larkin on this point: “ . . . in the end Owen’s war is not Sassoon’s war [Sassoon was an outspoken critic of the war] but all war; not particular suffering but all suffering; not particular waste but all waste. If his verse did not cease to be valid in 1918 it is because those things continued and the necessity for compassion with them.”

Cuthbertson somewhat less effectively addresses how Owen’s poetry developed from his early, more romantic verse to the mature artistry of his final year, to powerfully direct and, as Cuthbertson describes it, almost photographic reportorial poetry – or, to borrow from Yeats again, poetry “as cold and passionate as the dawn.” Cuthbertson offers several theories. He tentatively suggests that a concussion suffered in 1917 might have acted as a catalyst for Owen’s heightened creativity and remarks upon “a condition called ‘acquired savant syndrome’ which would apply to the more extreme cases: following a head injury and concussion the injured person acquires a new or greater talent for something.”

He also explores the role of Siegfried Sassoon, whom Owen met at Craiglockhart War Hospital, an army hospital where soldiers were treated for shell shock. Sassoon was older, better educated, and already possessed of an established reputation as both soldier and poet. Owen clearly benefited from his friendship, advice, and intelligence, but, according to Cuthbertson, Owen also retained his artistic independence. Sassoon himself downplayed his role in Owen’s literary achievements, recalling that he only encouraged him to write with “compassionate and challenging realism,” but a realism that Sassoon acknowledged was already present in Owen’s own letters written to his mother before he and Sassoon met.

Possibly the most powerful source of realism in Owen’s later poetry is simply what the biographer describes as Owen’s growing commitment and sense of duty to tell the truth about what he had witnessed — thus the powerful and reportorial quality of his later poetry. However, the lack of a convincing, definitive explanation perhaps leaves the only one there is: Owen’s artistic maturity was the result of the natural, if compressed, development of his talent — a talent irreducible to simple analysis or explanation, a gift realized in the crucible of war but not created by it: “The feeling in Owen’s letters [to his mother] at this time is not that the poet was made by the war but that the poet had to survive it.”

Finally, in Cuthbertson’s telling, one is moved by this humble outsider — an unlikely poet and an unlikely soldier, who would distinguish himself as both. Cuthbertson reminds us that Owen “once fancied having ‘my dead name’ in Westminster Abbey, ‘High in the heart of London unsurpassed / By time for ever . . . ’ ” He would not be buried at Westminster Abbey, but his poetry won him a place there nevertheless: He is one of 16 World War I poets commemorated at Westminster in what is known as Poets’ Corner. As the biographer notes, Wilfred Owen the soldier was buried in the “humbler, more rustic” Communal Cemetery in Ors, France. He rests there with so many of Britain’s war-dead, those who were killed fighting in France when they were young, a hundred years ago.

— Sydney Leach is an attorney who writes from Virginia.

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