Wilfred Owen’s Letters Home from Witley Camp

Wilfed Owen

Title: Wilfed Owen
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Text by Chris Bent

Wilfred Owen wrote some of the most memorable poems of the First World War. The beauty of his writing can also be found in the many hundreds of letters that he sent to family and friends, mostly to his mother Susan. These letters give us a rich perspective of his life, his beliefs and his values. Those written from Witley camp are a treasure of memories of life at camp and the men who were based there. Extracts from some of these letters are summarised below. Owen was generally very happy at Witley and liked the camp, though initially his arrival there was a shock to the system.

Witley and Milford camps

Got a car from Milford to the Camp 2 or 3 miles off: a vast affair on the top of the hill with Pines interspersed amongst the huts. The Officers’ huts form a big settlement apart….The site is delightful for a camp; but we are all confined to it.  Susan 18.6.1916

I am an exile here, suddenly cut off both from the present day world and from my own past life. I feel more in a strange land than when arriving at Bordeaux! It is due to the complete newness of the country, the people, my dress, my duties, the dialect, the air, food, everything….. I have nearly got together my camp effects, Bed, chair, wash-stand, etc all necessary here. Shall be glad of socks as soon as you can send them. Would you include my enamel mug, left on my dressing table.  Susan 19.6.1916

Food & Drink

Supper was an informal meal today. I was helped to an enormous portion of pies and things. Susan 18.6.1916

Your Thursday Parcel arrived only this morning. Many loving thanks for the Chocs. But you really mustn’t send any more. I fare sumptuously every day. Susan 20.6.1916

The Mess at 8 o’clock is a fairly dignified performance. We get food “a la Grand Hotel” always. Colin 19.6.1916

Soldiers

I know nothing of the officers, other than our Set of “Artists” and nothing of my duties. The men seemed a fairly superior crowd. Susan 18.6.1916

The generality of men are hard-handed, hard-headed miners, dogged, loutish, ugly (but I would trust them to advance under fire and to hold their trench), blond, coarse, ungainly, strong, unfatigueable, unlovely, Lancashire soldiers, Saxons to the bone. Susan 19.6.1916

I am “commanding” numbers of wounded men, now restored. It gives me a great deal of pain to speak severely to them, as now and again need is. I am beginning to pick out the Intelligent and the smart “laads” from amongst the uncouth and ungainly. But I have no individual dealings. My Servant is a Grandfather, with medals of old wars and sons fighting. Susan 3.7.1916

Duties

Had to assist inspection of kit, this morning. I see a toothbrush and a box of polish missing. I demand in a terrible voice “Where’s your TOOTH-BRUSH?” and learn that the fellow has just returned from overseas”…….My most irksome duty is acting Taskmaster while the tired fellows dig: the most pleasant is marching home over the wild country at the head of my platoon, with a flourish of trumpets and an everlasting roll of drums.  Susan 19.6.1916

I am perfectly well, not a bit worried or overworked: though I trod on knife-edges at the first. Susan 20.6.1916

We have been expecting the King to visit our trenches and have worked overtime every day this week. Our anxiety begins again tomorrow! I give an extra ten minutes to shaving every morning in consequence. It is most annoying. Susan 3.7.1916

Training

I have had an exam today: a written one yesterday and an oral one held in the open air this morning. I don’t greatly care if I fail: it means I stay in England longer……We have to get up at 5.45 for strenuous physical drill. Our Sergeant-Major gives it us……I gave “Eyes Front” when I meant “Eyes Left” in passing a guard this afternoon!! The Sergeant Major never even smiled. Nor did I!  Colin 19.6.1916

I often have a Platoon completely to myself on the Moors (The Surrey Downs). Red-Hats gallop up to us at startling speed, or sometimes whizz up in motors, but they never stay long, or criticise. Susan 3.7.1916

I am most frightfully hard-worked. It is one of the worst weeks I ever had in the army. Work begins at 6.30 and never finishes all day. I am deaf with the 7 hours continual shooting and stomach-achy with the fasting from food. Susan late July

I am now as well up in Gas Warfare as can be. It is some satisfaction to feel knowing in these matters, because I am sure it will be used more and more. Gregg and I have devised a slight improvement in the P.H. Helmet but it is not worth noising abroad since the Helmet is really out of date now, displaced by _ But, here I am beginning to “Leak information” (when I have to read daily a solemn W.O. letter, saying that no talk of the War is ever to be indulged in, even in private letters and so on!). Susan early August 1916

I was on Bomb throwing with real live Mills Grenades. I went to sleep in a safe spot when I had thrown my own; but the noise was too frightful to go on. After lunch I fell asleep; and remained so long after the rest had fallen in! But none noticed me! Arriving back in camp I was called upon suddenly to lecture on Discipline. I was now feeling “rotton” but I thought obedience in this case would make a good opening verse for the Lecture; and so it did. Susan 22.8.1916

Read more about Wilfred Owen in Surrey:

https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/wilfred-edward-salter-owen/

https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/wilfred-owen-at-witley-camp/

https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/wilfred-owen-in-guildford-and-godalming/

https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/the-poetry-of-wilfred-owen/

 

 

Acknowledgement for the Letters is made to: Wilfred Owen:  The Collected Letters, eds. Harold Owen and John Bell (Oxford University Press, 1967)

Acknowledgement is made to the Wilfred Owen Literary Trust

 

 

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