The War Poetry Website
A Short Account
of the Life of Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 1893 - 1918
Wilfred Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. He was educated at Birkenhead Institute and Shrewsbury Technical College. He applied to study at the University of Reading but his application was rejected.
From the age of nineteen Owen wanted to be a poet and immersed himself in poetry, being especially impressed by Keats and Shelley. He wrote almost no poetry of importance until he saw action in France in 1917.
He was deeply attached to his mother to whom most of his 664 letters are addressed. (She saved every one.) He was a committed Christian and became lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden near Reading 1911-1913 – teaching Bible classes and leading prayer meetings – as well as visiting parishioners and helping in other ways.
From 1913 to 1915 Wilfred Owen worked as a language tutor in France before returning to Britain.
He felt pressured by all the talk and the views expressed constantly in the newspapers and in many churches urging all fit young men to become soldiers to go and fight the Germans.
He volunteered to join the army on 21st October 1915. At first he was full of boyish high spirits at being a soldier.
Over a year of training passed before he was sent to France. He spent the last day of 1916 in a tent in France joining the Second Manchesters.
Within a week he had been transported to the front line in a cattle wagon and was "sleeping" 70 or 80 yards from a heavy gun which fired every minute or so. He was soon wading miles along trenches two feet deep in water. Within a few days he was experiencing gas attacks and was horrified by the stench of the rotting dead; his sentry was blinded, his company then slept out in deep snow and intense frost till the end of January.
That month was a profound shock for him: he now understood the meaning of war. "The people of England needn't hope. They must agitate," he wrote home. (See his poems The Sentry and Exposure.)
He escaped bullets until the last week of the war, but he saw a good deal of front-line action: He was blown up, concussed and suffered shell-shock. After this he was sent back to England and then up to Scotland.
At Craiglockhart, the psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh, he met the soldier poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who inspired him to develop his war poetry.
Wilfred Owen was sent back to the trenches in September, 1918 and in October won the Military Cross by seizing a German machine-gun and using it to kill a number of Germans.
On 4th November he was shot and killed near the village of Ors. The news of his death reached his parents home as the Armistice bells were ringing on 11 November 1918.
Useful and fascinating war poetry anthologies
Two war poetry anthologies that are useful in the study of poetry of the First World war are Minds at War and Out in the Dark. There are 27 of Wilfred Owen's finest war poems in Minds at War (all his most important war poems) and 19 in Out in the Dark. Both anthologies contain additional information, comment, and extracts from his letters, biographical information, and very many poems by other poets of the First World War.