LIEUTENANT WILFRED EDWARD SALTER OWEN MC
4TH NOVEMBER 1918 AGE 25
BURIED: ORS BRITISH CEMETERY, FRANCE
A hundred years after his death Wilfred Owen is one of the most famous casualties of the war, certainly the most famous poet to have been killed, even the most famous of all the war poets. However, at the time, few people had ever heard of him. Two weeks after his death, his parents inserted an announcement in The Times but there was no follow-up obituary. Whereas three days after Rupert Brooke's death a headline in The Times read, 'Death of Mr Rupert Brooke', the article accompanied by an appreciation written by Winston Churchill, then still First Lord of the Admiralty.
But as Brooke's reputation has diminished, somewhat unfairly as he died before his poetry could reflect his experience of warfare, Owen's has soared. Yet Owen too could write like Brooke in the early days; his first poem of the war concluding with the verse:
O meet it is and passing sweet
To live in peace with others,
But sweeter still and far more meet
To die in war for brothers.
Owen's post-war fame was fostered by those members of the literary world who saw his quality, people like Harold Munro, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Edith Sitwell. Sitwell was the first person to publish a collection of Owen's work. The 1919 edition of Wheels, the magazine she edited with her brother, Osbert, not only carried seven of his poems but was dedicated to the memory of 'W.O.' By the late twentieth century his reputation had reached iconic status, where it remains. Owen is the anti-war poet of all anti-war poets, the man who portrayed war in its full repulsiveness.
Yet, when offered the ability to escape the war, as he was in the summer of 1918 following his treatment for shell shock at Craiglockhart, Owen decided he must return to the front. As he wrote in The Calls:
For leaning out last midnight on my sill,
I heard the sighs of men, that have no skill
To speak of their distress, no, nor the will!
A voice I know. And this time I must go.
Owen did not return to the front just so that he could give voice to the voiceless soldiery but to fight. The Military Cross he was awarded for his actions on 1st/2nd October 1918 was for not only assuming command when his company commander became a casualty but for personally manipulating a captured enemy machine gun and inflicting 'considerable losses on the enemy'. He was killed just over a month later, shot as he encouraged his men to face the German machine guns as they desperately tried to prevent the British army crossing the Sambe-Oise canal.
Wilfred was the eldest child of Tom Owen, Assistant Superintendent of the Joint Railways [the LNWR and GWR], and his wife, Susan. The news of his death reached the family home on 11 November, just as all the church bells were ringing to celebrate the Armistice.
When, some time later his parents were asked to choose an inscription, they chose a line from one of their son's own poems, The End. His father actually signed the form confirming the inscription although his mother is always blamed for curtailing the quotation and so giving it a meaning diametrically opposed to the one her son intended. The poem, which people have tried to see as a comment on the war, has to be a comment on the idea of resurrection, the Day of Judgement. Owen asks:
Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?
There are two questions here. The inscription, as chosen by the parents, contains a question and an answer:
Shall life renew
Of a truth
All death will he annul.
Owen questions the resurrection, his parents assert it. Their action is no different from the many other families who took lines out of context and in so doing altered their meanings. Mr and Mrs Owen could never have envisaged that their son's poetry would become the subject of such minute study, and in any case - it's what they wanted to say.