On this day in 1918, just one week before the armistice was declared, ending World War I, the British poet Wilfred Owen is killed in action during a British assault on the German-held Sambre Canal on the Western Front.
Born in 1893, Owen was teaching English to children near Bordeaux, France, when war broke out in the summer of 1914. The following year, he returned to England and enlisted in the war effort; by January 1916 he was on the front lines in France. As he wrote in 1918, his motives for enlisting were twofold, and included his desire to write of the experience of war: “I came out in order to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.”
On April 1, 1917, near the town of St. Quentin, Owen led his platoon through an artillery barrage to the German trenches, only to discover when they arrived that the enemy had already withdrawn. Severely shaken and disoriented by the bombardment, Owen barely avoided being hit by an exploding shell, and returned to his base camp confused and stammering. A doctor diagnosed shell-shock, a new term used to describe the physical and/or psychological damage suffered by soldiers in combat. Though his commanding officer was skeptical, Owen was sent to a French hospital and subsequently returned to Britain, where he was checked into the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers.
Owen’s time at Craiglockhart—one of the most famous hospitals used to treat victims of shell-shock—coincided with that of his great friend and fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who became a major influence on his work. After their treatment, both men returned to active service in France, though only Sassoon would survive the war. Owen came close, but on November 4, 1918, he was shot by a German machine-gunner during an unsuccessful British attempt to bridge the Sambre Canal, near the French village of Ors. In his hometown of Shrewsbury, near the Welsh border, his mother did not receive the telegraphed news of her son’s death until after the fighting had ended.
Now celebrated as one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century, Owen’s war poems were popularized in the 1960s when Benjamin Britten included nine of them in his War Requiem, dedicated to four friends who had been killed in World War II. The most famous of them, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” is not only a memorial to those who died in the Great War of 1914-19, but a classic and timeless representation of the waste and sacrifice of war:
What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?—Only the monstrous anger of the gunsOnly the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattleCan patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?Not in the hands of boys but in their eyesShall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.