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. More photographs are to be found
towards the end of this article.
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.
Only extracts from letters have been reduced. The full relevant
extracts from letters appear in both Out in the Dark and
Minds at War.
Three statements by Owen
"All a poet can do today is
warn. That is why the true poet must be truthful."
"The people of England needn’t
hope. They must agitate." Letter 19 January, 1917, shortly
after arriving at the front line in France.
"I am more and more a
Christian. . . Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort
to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed: but do not kill."
Letter to his mother, May 1917.
psychological journey - extract from Chapter 9 of Minds at
(with shortened extracts from his letters - See above.)
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
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.)
In August in Craiglockhart War
Hospital he came under the influence of 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
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
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
For power was on us as we
slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse
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
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
Above all I am not concerned
My subject is War, and the pity
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
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
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 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.
Scenes associated with Wilfred Owen's last days
Note: the pictures of the place where Wilfred Owen died, the
cemetery at Ors and Wilfred Owen's grave appear in Minds at War
but are in black and white. A picture of Wilfred Owen's grave
appears in Out in the Dark
together with three other illustrations in the chapter devoted
to Wilfred Owen.
The Sambre canal just south of the village of
Ors where Wilfred own was killed at the age of twenty-five on
4th November 1918. The Germans held the right bank. In those
days there was a line of poplars on this side too, though badly
damaged by shell fire.
a mile north of Ors, in the corner of a field and next to the railway
line, is the village cemetery. At east end of it is the small British
military cemetery, separated from the grassfield by a neat hedge.
Wilfred Owen's grave is in the far left corner, third from the left.
Beyond it can be seen the village of Ors and its church. Just beyond
this is the canal Where Wilfred owen died.
Wilfred Owen's grave in the cemetery at Ors,
northern France, photographed in March 1995, a few days after
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There are 19 of the
best of Wilfred Owen's war poems in Out in the Dark
and 27 in Minds at
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Wilfred Owen Portrait Copyright © 1999 Saxon Books.
Photographs copyright ©
David Roberts and Saxon Books 1995. All rights reserved, but the
illustrations may be copied and used for personal,
non-commercial use by right clicking them and copying to
clipboard or saving.
The artist who drew the portrait of Wilfred Owen, James
Mitchell, may be contacted through the email address on the main page of this website.