Research and text by Chris Bent
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893 to 1918) is arguably the most admired and respected poet of the First World War. His poetry differed significantly to the romantic vision of war and was characterised by its poignant images of the horrors of trench and gas warfare. To this day, his poetry is widely read and has been part of the school curriculum for nearly fifty years.
Born in Oswestry to Susan and Tom, he had two brothers (Harold and Colin) and one sister (Mary). Tom worked for the railway company and the family lived in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury.
He was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and Shrewsbury Technical School. When schooling was over he became lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden, near Reading. This was partly due to his mother who was a devout Christian and brought her son up as an Anglican of the evangelical school. This was not a good experience though for Wilfred and he lost his faith in his Low Church background whilst there.
From 1913 to 1915 he worked as an English teacher at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux and also tutored his own pupils. When war broke out he was in no hurry to join up but eventually felt the need to and returned to England in September 1915. On October 20th he passed his medical at the HQ of the Artists’ Rifles in Euston. For the next seven months he was trained at Hare Hall Camp, Gidea Park, Essex.
On June 4th 1916 he was commissioned to the 5th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant. For the next three months his training was based at the large camp at Witley in Surrey. There he initially found his men rough and uncouth. He gained their respect in particular due to his exceptional shooting skills and in time came to love them and thought he could have no finer men fighting alongside him.
As 1917 started, he was transferred to the Western Front and within weeks was standing for 50 hours in a flooded dugout in No Man’s Land at Serre. This had a significant impact on his mental state. By April he was at Savy Wood where there was very heavy fighting. He was hit by a shell explosion that mutilated the friend alongside him. After some time he was rescued and sent to the 13th Casualty Clearance Station at Gailly, suffering from what we now understand to be shell shock. By June he was back in England.
Within 10 days of returning to England he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh which specialised in psychiatric treatment. There he met Siegfried Sassoon, who had a significant impact on the development of his poetry. Sassoon had similar views about the war and provided inspiration and encouragement whilst reviewing his poems.
In November 1917 he was discharged from Craiglockhart and was thought fit enough for light regimental duties. This he carried out for the next nine months at Clarence Gardens Hotel, Scarborough and the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. He could have seen out the remaining months of the war safely in England. However, by this time he had a deep desire to return to his men and was convinced that he needed to be at the Front to continue to provide the agitated messages through his now much developed poetry.
At the end of August he left Folkestone to return to his battalion who had been withdrawn and were now at Corbie near Amiens. By September he was back in the front line trenches and in October he won the Military Cross for his bravery at Joncourt where he seized a German machine gun.
Tragically, Wilfred Owen was killed in the last week of the war whilst trying to lead his men over a pontoon bridge at Sambre Canal, Ors. His grave is at the village cemetery Ors and his parents heard the news of his death on Armistice Day, 11th November, 1918.
Read more about Wilfred Owen in Surrey:
More information can be found on the Wilfred Owen Association website.