Wilfred Owen is widely recognised as one of the foremost poets of the First World War, although at the time of his death in 1918 he was virtually unknown and only four of his poems were published in his lifetime. He was greatly influenced by his friend and mentor Siegfried Sassoon and his poems are noted for their horrific portrayal of trench warfare.
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born on 18th March 1893 at Plas Wilmot, a house in Weston Lane, near Oswestry in Shropshire. He was the eldest of the four children of Thomas and Harriet Susan (née Shaw) and his siblings were Harold, Colin, and Mary Millard Owen. He was brought up in the Welsh borders in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury.
After leaving school Wilfred Owen became a teaching assistant and in 1913 he moved to Bordeaux, France where he became a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages. He had been writing poetry since his teens and whilst in France he met the older French poet Laurent Tailhade, with whom he later corresponded. He was working in France when the First World War began and considered enlisting in the French Army before returning to England in 1915 to enlist in the British Army. He joined the Artist Rifles Officer Training Corps where for the next seven months he underwent training at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. On 4th June 1916 Wilfred Owen was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment and was posted to the 5th (Reserve) Battalion at Milford Camp, Whitley, Surrey.
On 29th December 1916 Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen left for France and in early January was posted as a battlefield replacement to the 2nd Battalion the Manchester Regiment, which had been badly mauled in the Battle of the Somme and by November 1916 had a strength of just 6 officers and 150 other ranks. He along with 526 other replacement officers and men joined the battalion at Halloy Les Pernois, east of Doullens.
On 7th January 1917 they moved forward via Bertrancourt to Courcelles when they became part of the Brigade Reserve. Here they took turn and turn about with the 15th Highland Light Infantry manning a two-company section of the front line near Serre. The area that they occupied was between the present day Serre Road No 1 and Serre Road No 2 Cemeteries.
The present day Serre Road lay in what was No-man's Land in the shallow valley between the British frontline on the western side and the slightly higher German frontline on the eastern side. Dotted through No-man's Land were a number of outposts including a German bunker located some 40 yards or so from the north-eastern tip of Serre Road No 2 Cemetery.
On 12th January 1917 the 2nd Manchesters relieved the 15th Highland Light Infantry in the front line and Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen occupied this bunker with 25 of his men where they endured 50 hours of heavy shelling until they were relieved in the early hours of 15th January by the 15th Highland Light Infantry.
On 23rd January 1917 Wilfred Owen was back in the frontline, further to the west towards Beaumont Hamel and Munich Trench. In the coldness of winter frost descended upon the men laying out in the snow and icy-wind. Here they had no dug-outs and were in full view of the enemy. On 27th January the 2nd Manchesters were relieved by the 5/6th Royal Scots and marched to huts at Bertrancourt. Whilst here Wilfred Owen was sent to Abbeville to attend a three-week Army transport course. It was while Wilfred Owen was on this course that the Germans withdrew from their frontline and pulled back to their newly constructed defensive system — the Hindenburg Line.
The 2nd Manchesters moved south to take over a section of the front line near Le Quesnoy en Santerre from the French on 25th February 1917. It was here that Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen rejoined the battalion and was assigned to B Company commanded by Lieutenant Sebastian Sorrell. It was in the vicinity of Le Quesnoy that Wilfred Owen fell down a 15 feet well in the pitch black of night as he was going to see a man in a dangerous state of exhaustion. He hit his head on the way down and was sent to 13 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) at Gailly where he was diagnosed with concussion. At the end of March Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen was discharged from the CCS and rejoined the 2nd Manchesters at Beauvois where they were involved in attacks on the German held Hindenburg line in front of St Quentin. Here he spent the following month and much of what he experienced was to influence his later poetry.
On 1st May 1917 Wilfred Owen was back at 13 CCS on orders of the Battalion's Medical Officer; Lieutenant Colonel Noel Luxmoore, had observed that he was shaky, his memory was impaired and he was in no state to lead his men. Shortly after he arrived, No 21 CCS near Corbie was closed and some of the patients and medical staff transferred to Gailly where their unit was collocated with 13 CCS and re-designated No 41 Stationary Hospital. Here Wilfred Owen was treated for just over one month for 'neurasthenia', more popularly known as 'shell shock', before being transferred to No 1 General Hospital at Etretat on 7 June 1917. From Etretat he was sent back to England to the Welsh Hospital at Netley, Southampton where he was assessed and attended a medical board on 25th June 1917. The medical Board's report was:
"The Board find that in March 1917, 2nd Lt W E S Owen of the 5th (attached 2nd) Bn Manchester Regiment fell down a well at Bouchoir and was momentarily stunned. He was under Medical Treatment for 3 weeks and then resumed duty. About the middle of April he was blown up by a shell explosion while asleep. On May 1st he was observed to be shaky and tremulous and his conduct and manner were peculiar and his memory confused. The RMO sent him to No 41 Stationary Hospital Gailly where he was under observation and treatment by Captain Brown RAMC, neurological specialist, for a month. On 7.6.17 he was transferred to Welsh Hospital Netley. There is little abnormality to be observed but he seems to be of a highly strung temperament. He has slept well while here. He leaves hospital today transferred to Craiglockhart War Hospital Edinburgh for special observation and treatment."
Wilfred Owen arrived at Craiglockhart on 26th June 1917 and it was here that Wilfred Owen was to meet two of the most important figures in his life.
One was the medical officer in charge of his treatment Dr Arthur Brock. Dr Brock favoured the 'occupational cure' for neurasthenia where sufferers were encouraged to be active and to follow their own interests and instincts. He encouraged Wilfred Owen to face the "phantoms of the mind" and even exploit them in his poetry. Arthur Brock was one of the team headed up by the pioneering psychiatrist and psychoanalyst William Rivers whose job was to get his patients well enough to return to the front.
The second was Siegfried Sassoon who arrived at Craiglockhart in August 1917. Siegfried Sassoon was already a poet of considerable reputation and shared many of Wilfred Owen's views about the war. Wilfred Owen introduced himself to Siegfried Sassoon on 17th August and from that point onward Sassoon's influence on Wilfred Owen should not be underestimated. He saw Siegfried Sassoon as a guiding light and held him in such high regard that it was almost hero-worship. Siegfried Sassoon agreed to look over Wilfred Owen's poems and through reading Sassoon's poems and discussing his own work with Sassoon, Wilfred Owen's own style and conception of poetry grew and developed. Sassoon, like Arthur Brock, encouraged Wilfred Owen write about the war as a form of therapy, and so the earliest drafts of some of Wilfred Owen's most acclaimed work — Dulce et Decorum est, Strange Meeting and his masterpiece Anthem for Doomed Youth — were born. Siegfried Sassoon also introduced Wilfred Owen to other literary figures including Robert Graves and Robbie Ross, the Canadian journalist and critic who mentored a group of young artists and poets.
Wilfred Owen also made many friends within Edinburgh's artistic and literary circles, and on 25th September 1917, whilst still a patient at Craiglockhart, he gave the first of several lessons in English Literature at Tynecastle High School, a school in a poor area of the city.
On 28th October 1917 a medical board found Wilfred Owen to be fit for light Regimental duties and on 3rd November 1917 he was discharged from Craiglockhart. On 24th November 1917 Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen reported for duty to the 5th (Reserve) Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, who were stationed at Scarborough, and was appointed 'major-domo' of the Officers' Mess which was the Clarence Gardens Hotel. On 4th December Wilfred Owen was promoted to Lieutenant and after a contented and fruitful winter in Scarborough he was posted in March 1918 to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. While in Ripon he composed or revised a number of poems; including Futility and Strange Meeting.
In August 1918, Lieutenant Wilfred Owen was passed fit to return to active duty and on the 12th he went on embarkation leave prior to his return to France. On 31st August 1917 he reported to the Base Camp at Etaples before continuing onward to reported to the Depot at Amiens on 9th September 1917. Here he remained until 15th September 1917 when he left the Depot to rejoin the 2nd Manchesters who were now part of the 96th Brigade and encamped at La Neuville near Corbie. On the 24th September 1917 the 2nd Manchesters and Lieutenant Wilfred Owen began their journey back to the frontline. They went into Billets in the Tertry area where they remained until the 29th.
At 14:30 hrs on 29th September 1917 the 2nd Manchesters left Tertry and march towards the frontline. The crossed the St Quentin Canal via the Riqueval Bridge at 20:30 hrs and spent the night in the old German trenches about 3 Km east of the canal. On the 30th they moved into positions in the vicinity of Mangy La Fosse establishing their Battalion headquarters on the outskirts of the village. On 1st October 1917 the 2nd Manchesters were ordered to attack the enemy's line at Joncourt. They were to capture and hold the enemy trench system and Swiss Cottage on the left flank. Zero hour was set for 16:00 hrs. It was during this attack against the Beaurevoir — Fonsomme line that Lieutenant Wilfred Owen was awarded the Military Cross for his actions. His citation reads:
"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly."
The London Gazette, Supplement: 31480, page: 9761, dated 29th July 1919.
On 5th October 1918 the 2nd Manchesters moved back to Hancourt where they remained until the 29th when they went back into the line for the last time near St Souphlet. On 30th/31st they took over the line west of the Oise-Sambre Canal near Ors. The enemy were holding the line of the canal and on 2nd November 1918 the 32nd Division received orders to effect a crossing over the canal between Landrecies and Catillon-sur-Sambre on 4th November 1918. The 25th Division was to the left of the 32nd Division and was to attack at Landrecies and then advance to the north-east, and the 1st Division was to the right of the 32nd Division and was to effect a crossing at Catillon-sur-Sambre and further south.
The 2nd Manchesters was the right-hand battalion of the 96th Brigade and attacked across the Oise-Sambre Canal a dawn. It was during this attack that Lieutenant Wilfred Owen MC was killed in action. He is buried nearby at Ors Communal Cemetery.