Wilfred Owen was born the 18th of March 1893 in Oswestry (United Kingdom). He was the eldest of four children and brought up in the Anglican religion of the evangelical school. For an evangelical, man is saved not by the good he does; but by the faith he has in the redeeming power of Christ’s sacrifice. Though he had rejected much of his belief by 1913, the influence of his education remains visible in his poems and in their themes: sacrifice, Biblical language, his description of Hell.
He moved to Bordeaux (France) in 1913, as a teacher of English in the Berlitz School of Languages; one year later he was a private teacher in a prosperous family in the Pyrenees.
He enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles on 21st October 1915; there followed 14 months of training in England. He was drafted to France in 1917, the worst war winter. His total war experience will be rather short: four months, from which only five weeks in the line. On this is based all his war poetry. After battle experience, thoroughly shocked by horrors of war, he went to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh.
In August 1918, after his friend, the other great War Poet, Siegfried Sassoon, had been severely injured and sent back to England, Owen returned to France. War was still as horrid as before. The butchery was ended on 11th November 1918 at 11 o’clock. Seven days before Owen had been killed in one of the last vain battles of this war.
ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? –
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in The hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine The holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
The Stalemate and the War of Attrition
One of the defining facts of The Great War was the industrial production of munitions, and relative modern transport systems. This made the support of these great armies possible, and consequently the astonishing levels of death and destruction. Twentieth century defensive weapons such as the machine gun, close proximity artillery, mortars, barbed wire, was attacked by Victorian offensive weapons and strategies. The outcome was obvious and inevitable. Great progress in modern offensive weapons were made, but generals whose grasp of military strategy was still in the days of the Crimea used them ineffectively, and then disregarded them when the outcome was not the desired one. The tank was such at the Somme, by trying to use them after the great barrages when all the earth was chewed up and muddy, the tanks just got bogged down. The Germans however were very impressed by the British tanks, as was demonstrated 24 years later in a very different Battle of France, Blitzkrieg.
What price Victory?
Before the Somme a few people were beginning to call for a peace settlement between the Allies and Germany. After the Somme many people started to take up this cause and a few believed that the war was being pursued for reasons other than for which it had begun. The rational behind the initial conflict was based on a balance of power between two alliances preventing war. Unfortunately at least one side felt they had a military superiority and the conflict began. The Falkenhayn attack at Verdun was based on the premise that victory could be achieved by drawing the French into such a terrible battle that they would sue for peace. By the end of the November 1916 both sides had lost a million men. Such was this war that it was obvious no one could win, and all would loose.
Calls for a Peace Settlement
Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, set out his anti war opinions in his essays, Justice in War Time. “The real motive which prolongs the war is pride. Is there no statesman who can think in terms of Europe, not only of separate nations? Is our civilisation a thing of no account to all our rulers? ..I hope that somewhere among the men who hold power in Europe there is at least one who will remember – . that we are the guardians not only of the nation, but of that common heritage of thought and art and a humane way of life into which we were born, but which our children may find wasted by our blind violence and hate “. Russells support of conscientious objectors led to his prosecution under D.O.R.A (Defence Of the Realm Act, an act of parliament effectively outlawing any criticism of the government and it’s pursuance of the war). The voice of protest also had an eloquent outlet in The Nation, a weekly periodical edited by H. W. Massingham. One of his editorials discussed the effect of violence on society: “Force has taken a new place in our lives and transformed our outlook in subtle and manyfold ways that defy analysis. The return to the civilian mind, to persuasion, to government by frank and tolerant opinion will nowhere be easy.” In an article called “Pale for Weariness,” Massinghain described the effect of war on Europe at the end of 191 6. “Europe is tired out… not only is the best blood of Europe being spilled without ceasing in the trenches but the vitality of the remaining millions is being immeasurably drained by the constant demand for guns, for shells, and for supplies. Millions are being racked by anxiety as to a loved one’s fate… The Europe of the Great Peace will be a sickly and enfeebled continent the flower of its youth will have withered where it grew, and the spring will have vanished from its year. Pale from the loss of blood will our new world be; pale also for weariness. Lastly there was pressure for a negotiated peace from within the Government itself. In November, 1916, a Memorandum was circulated within the Cabinet by Lord Lansdowne, Minister without Portfolio. He foresaw social and economic disaster if the war continued. “What does prolongation of the war mean? Our own casualties already amount to over 1,100,000. We have had 15,000 officers killed … We are slowly but surely killing off the best of the male population of these islands… The financial burden which we have already accumulated is almost incalculable. We are adding to it at the rate of £5,000,000 a day. Generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss … Can we afford to go on paying the same price for the same sort of gain?
Such protests received little sympathy in 1916. As the sufferings of war increased, attitudes hardened. Sylvia Pankhurst described propaganda how a pacifist meeting was broken up. “Poorly clad women with pinched, white faces and backs bent by excessive toil, their eyes flashing and fists clenched, rushed out from their hovels screaming, ‘No peace without victory! We want peace on our terms!’ . . . Saddest of all were the degraded, the starved and shabby, who rushed intoxicated from the public houses demanding that the entire German population should be ‘wiped out!’ Sometimes they would attempt a tipsy war dance in the midst of the crowd. The conscientious objectors bore the brunt of public hostility. They were tongue lashed by the chairmen of Tribunals. “A man who would not help defend his own country and womankind is a coward and a cad. You are nothing but a shivering mass of unwholesome fat.” Lloyd George led the campaign against them with the chill promise, “I shall consider the best means of making the lot of that class a hard one.” The minority of “absolutist” objectors, who refused any war service, were sometimes subjected to considerable brutality. Some were shipped to France, where refusal to obey orders meant the death penalty. The scandal about these men caused the Daily News to ask, “Where are we drifting?”
The Prosecution of the War was now being driven by the lowest common denominator – public opinion supported by the gutter press!
There were how ever voices of dissent that could not be ignored or written of as cowards, the serving men themselves, especially ones who were highly decorated in battle. The most famous being the two War Poets; Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Sassoon who had been awarded the Military Cross for saving wounded men became a fervent opponent of the war and was helped by Bertrand Russell. Sassoon on recovering from wounds refused to go back to France and had a statement read in Parliament…..
Finished with the War
A Soldier’s Declaration,
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects witch actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerity’s for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.
S. Sassoon, July 1917
Unfortunately the voices of dissent were not heeded and the war continued until the jingoism was replaced by despair on one side and civil unrest in Germany brought the war to a close