Facing WWI with Poetry and Courage

Article excerpt

Byline: Colin Walters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Wilfred Owen, the English poet killed in France just a week before the Armistice in November 1918, went off to a war very different from that upon which U.S. troops stand poised this New Year in the Middle East. No one expected allied soldiers to slaughter the enemy virtually at will and come home relatively unscathed. Rather, they were assiduously trained to go out and get killed - as far too many were.

That is what happened, and no one had any illusions about it once the full terror of the war dissipated initial jingoistic euphoria. When Owen died storming the Sambre-Oise canal with the 2nd battalion of the Manchester Regiment, senior staff officers assured local commanders that artillery support would blot out enemy opposition. But the latter knew from experience on the Somme that this never worked. They "had worked hard to stiffen their battalion's morale after its disastrous charge on Joncourt ridge, and now they would have to pretend that all would be well on the canal. It must have been obvious to everyone that all would not be well."

Beyond the canal and the rest of the Hindenburg Line, the road lay open to Berlin; this was the Germans' last gasp and the temptation for the higher-level British commanders. It was at an element in the last battle of World War I. Owen had been recommended for an award in fierce fighting a very few days earlier. On November 4, his fellow officer and friend 2nd Lieut. John Foulkes, also of the Manchesters, reported last sighting Owen on a raft while the canal was raked by the enemy machine-gun fire for which it was opportunely placed.

Owen did not achieve his Calvary - comparison of the British fighting man with Jesus Christ was popular - by any saintly means. His military career had been an up and down thing, starting with not being in any hurry to join up. When he arrived in France at the end of 1916, the new second lieutenant conducted himself well in the "Seventh Hell" of Serre and Beaumont Hamel.

But after a terrible episode spent cowering under a sheet of galvanized iron during a many hours-long artillery barrage, Owen's nerve began to fail him. He was invalided home, finding his way to Craiglockart, the Scottish military hospital for officers made famous by W.H.R. Rivers, the anthropologist, and in Owen's case blessed by the presence of Capt.Arthur Brock, a psychiatrist gifted at putting torn-up souls back together again.

With hospital care, recuperation and months of light duty on the home front, it was September of that year, two months before the end of the war, when Owen returned to France. By that time he didn't want to go back. He had made influential friends, Siegfried Sassoon, with whom Owen had a sort of master-disciple friendship, Robert Graves, Robert Ross, Charles Scott Moncrieff (later translator of Proust), the Sitwells.

Representations were made at the War Office through Edward Marsh, another of the friends, to keep Owen in England - for which there was some case, his poetry having matured marvelously - but the adjutant-general wasn't having any of it. Exactly why Owen returned to the battlefieldremains something of a mystery; he said he'd decided to go, but there remains the suggested taint of authorities not wishing to favor an officer who had broken down rather than staying at the front and doing his duty until death or wounds cut him down. (One commanding officer during Owen's first period in France, accused him of cowardice, but this could have been triggered by a moment of irritability on the superior's part rather than seriously intended.)

In the event, Owen, now sure of his poetic powers, in process of finding himself and sense of purpose all across the board, felt that before settling down to tell in his poetry about the dreadfulness and waste of war, he "needed some reputation of gallantry," and went over to pick it up. He was as whole in himself as it is possible to be, strengthened by, rather than merely recovered from his mental travail and other doubts. …