The landscape near Joncourt, north of St Quentin in northern France. In this region in October 1918 Wilfred Owen killed a number of Germans, captured many more and thereby won his Military Cross. After this time Owen appears to identify even more strongly with his soldier colleagues. The article below traces the way his thinking changed over a few years.
This short account may give some insight into the development of Owen’s ideas and feelings and into the psychological change that probably takes place in most soldiers. To fight in a war and kill fellow human beings it is necessary to abandon the basic morality of civilised life and this requires painful mental adjustments.
This account may be of particular interest to anyone who reads Owen’s poems Insensibility and Apologia Pro Poemate Meo. This is most of the account in Minds at War. Extracts from letters have been reduced for copyright reasons. The full relevant extracts from letters appear in both Out in the Dark and Minds at War.
Wilfred Owen's Psychological Journey
Part of Chapter 9 of Minds at War
For most of the time he was in the army Wilfred Owen lived and fought as an outsider. By his upbringing, character, religion and philosophy he was totally unsuited to the role of a soldier. He was shy, unoffensive, bookish, introverted, unworldly, sensitive, caring and deeply Christian.
He tried conscientiously to do his duty and play his part. The action he saw and the experiences he had were about as extreme and traumatic as any experienced by other soldiers on the Western Front.
Shortly after Owen had been declared unfit for service because of his shell-shock he reflected in great anguish on the teachings of Christ which he and others were so blatantly ignoring. He wrote to his mother, describing himself as "a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience." ( For further details of Owen’s pacifism at the start of the war see the letter written to his mother, May 1917, printed on page 147 of Minds at War.)
Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh
In August in Craiglockhart War Hospital he came under the influence of Siegfried Sassoon who had just made his famous protest. Owen, too, wanted to make his protest, yet he couldn't identify with pacifists. His principles were locked into conflict. His role as a soldier and patriot demanded one thing: as a Christian, another. Knowing and believing Christ's teaching, with absolute clarity he felt compelled to act in complete contradiction to his convictions. The psychological conflict within him could hardly have been greater.
In a letter in October 1917 he asserted, "I hate washy pacifists." And then, echoing Sassoon's example. "Therefore I feel that I must first get some reputation for gallantry before I could successfully and usefully declare my principles."
In his poetry - even if he had not consciously acknowledged this in his time at the front line - he was now expressing the soldier's loss of moral feeling.
Merry it was to laugh there -
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.
These lines are from Apologia Pro Poemate Meo which Owen wrote in October and November of 1917. In this same period he also wrote a more extended account of the soldier's loss of feelings in Insensibility which he worked on between October 1917 and January 1918: "Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle now long since ironed, can laugh among the dying unconcerned."
By April 1918 he had taken another crucial decision. He had decided to turn his back on life. Talking to his brother whilst home on leave he said that he wanted to return to the front line. "I know I shall be killed. But it's the only place I can make my protest from."
In July, encouraged by Robert Ross (best known as a friend and supporter of Oscar Wilde) and the poet, Osbert Sitwell, Owen began to plan a volume of his poems. For it he wrote his first quick, half-thought-out draft of a preface. Some idea of his thoughts about his role may be gleaned from this.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
On 26th August he was declared fit for front line action and instructed to embark for France. He wrote to Sassoon, "Everything is clear now; and I am in hasty retreat towards the Front." Retreat from life, perhaps, or from himself.
Owen rejoined the Manchesters at la Neuville near Amiens on 15th September. As his company waited to go into the front line his fear was beginning to show. He wrote to Sassoon, pathetically blaming him for his predicament.
‘You said it would be a good thing for my poetry if I went back. That is my consolation for feeling a fool. This is what the shells scream at me every time: "Haven't you got the wits to keep out of this?"’
Late afternoon on 1st October, and on through the night, the 96th Brigade of the Manchesters went into action near the villages of Joncourt and Sequehart, six miles north of St Quentin. There was "savage hand- to-hand fighting." At first the Germans were driven back, but they made repeated counter-attacks.
Owen threw himself into his task. He wrote to his mother,
I lost all my earthly faculties, and I fought like an angel . . .
I captured a German Machine Gun and scores of prisoners . . . I only shot one man with my revolver . . .
My nerves are in perfect order.
The psychological change in Owen's personality was now definitely confirmed in action. Before this time we do not know what attempts, if any, he made to kill the enemy. His identification with soldiers and the soldiers' role, and his abandonment of his Christian principles, was now complete. Showing his habitual concern for his mother's feelings he implied that he had killed only one man, but the citation accompanying the Military Cross which he was awarded for his actions that night make it clear that he used the machine gun to kill a large number of men. "He personally manipulated a captured machine gun in an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly."
He now rationalised his motives. In part, he was thinking as a soldier. Forgetting that he had been ordered there, he wrote,
"I came out in order to help these boys - directly by leading them as well as an officer can ..."
and then he added an idea which had long been with him, seeing himself once again as an outsider to the soldier's role,
"indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak as well as a pleader can."
By killing men he crossed a moral divide between the good and the damned, and in so doing, surrendered his personality to the moral-numbness of front-line soldiers. The real Wilfred Owen no longer existed. The Wilfred Owen who entered the war was dead. His behaviour was no longer the expression of his own will: he was part of a fighting brotherhood, a killing machine. He was impervious to fear, had no sensitivity. He had no self-regard, no self-respect - no self to lose.
From now on his behaviour could be totally reckless being sufficiently rewarded by surges of adrenalin and a sense of heart-warming camaraderie. He wrote to his mother again on 8th October telling her this story of the aftermath of the battle when his company was still surrounded by the enemy. The letter concluded,
"I scrambled out myself and felt an exhilaration in baffling the Machine Guns by quick bounds from cover to cover. After the shells we had been through, and the gas, bullets were like the gentle rain from heaven ... Must write now to hosts of parents of Missing, etc . . ."
Writing of the battle to Sassoon on 10th October he said, "I cannot say I suffered anything; having let my brain grow dull . . . My senses are charred."
Owen knew that the war was nearing its end. The Germans were in full retreat. The British soldiers were welcomed with joyful gratitude by the French, and he was really enjoying himself being part of a band of soldiers. In his last letter to his mother, written on 31st October, he describes the maty atmosphere in his billets, "The Smoky Cellar of Forester's House." Conditions were so cramped that he could hardly write for pokes, nudges and jolts. The room was dense with smoke. His cook was chopping wood and an old soldier peeled potatoes and dropped them in a pot splashing Owen's hand as he did so. It was a scene of perfect soldierly brotherhood, and Owen remarks on his lack of sensitivity to danger.
"It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. . . Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.
Ever Wilfred x"
His mind was now perfectly prepared for his final action. There were now no crucial military objectives, yet the crossing of the seventy feet wide Sambre and Oise Canal, just south of the tiny village of Ors was treated as such. The Germans held the east bank, and were well defended with machine guns. At 5.45 on the morning of 4th November, under a hail of machine gun fire, the Royal Engineers attempted to construct an instant bridge out of wire-linked floats so that Owen's brigade and 15th and 16th Lancashire Fusiliers could cross and destroy or capture the enemy.
Group after group of soldiers went forward and were killed or wounded. Wilfred Owen, standing at the water's edge, was encouraging his men when he was hit and killed.
Seven days later the war was over. Church bells rang throughout the country. As they were ringing in Shrewsbury, Susan and Tom Owen received the telegram announcing their son's death.
This is a shortened extract from the anthology of First World War poetry with substantial background information, edited by David Roberts, Minds at War
The cover of the 400 page anthology of First World War poetry edited by David Roberts, first printed in 1996 and reprinted many times.