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100 years since Armistice – Wilfred Owen
You may know of the connection between Reading and Wilfred Owen, one of the great WW1 poets. His writing paints vivid pictures of his experiences of the brutal reality of warfare, and the history of his life helps give a context for the heart-breaking futility of war.
Born in Shropshire, throughout his school years Wilfred Owen developed an interest in poetry, being inspired by the likes of Keats and Shelley. By the age of nineteen he knew that he wanted to be a poet. But it was not until he saw action in France in 1917 that he began to write.
Between 1911 and 1913, Owen became Lay Assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden, near Reading, teaching Bible classes and leading prayer meetings, and helping in a variety of other ways. In 1913, he moved to France as a Language Tutor but, being deeply affected by news of the war, he volunteered for the British Army in October 1915. On 30th December 1916, having completed his military training, he returned to France as a soldier.
Absolutely nothing could fully prepare him for what he had to face on the front line and, within twelve days of arriving in France, the light-hearted chat of his letters home had turned to cries of despair. By 9th January 1917, he had joined the 2nd Manchesters on the Somme near Amien, and taken command of number 3 Platoon, “A” Company.
He found himself “sleeping” perilously close to a heavy field gun, which fired a round every minute or so, and wading thigh deep in muddy water through trenches, he quickly became worn down by the whole experience. The horrific gas attacks started, which brought their own terror, and each day he was exposed to the brutal horror of war, including the inescapable stench of death. He and his company slept out in the deep snow and freezing cold until the end of January. That first month on the front line had a profound effect on him.
He saw a good deal of front-line action, and blown-up, concussed and suffering from shell-shock, he was evacuated to a psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh to recuperate, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him to develop his poetry.
Recovering well enough to be considered fit for a return to active service, he was sent back to the trenches in September 1918, and in October won the Military Cross by leading a successful assault on a German machine-gun post.
Just as real signs of an end to war began to appear, he was shot and killed near the village of Ors on 4th November. With heart-rending poignancy, the news of his death reached his parents as the Armistice bells were ringing, on 11th November 1918. He was 25 years old.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can 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 eyes
Shall 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.
Wilfred Owen’s poems directly reflect the experience of all young men whose lives were lost. His articulation of the horrors of war also extends to those who survived, who sometimes carried lifelong physical and psychological wounds.
This November, as bells are tolled and rung in memory of the Armistice of 1918 in parish churches across the United Kingdom, we give sincere thanks for the peace that was bought by courageous sacrifice.
Revd Paul Willis
There is a Wilfred Owen event at All Saints’ Church, Dunsden (Nr Sonning Common) on November 10th. You’ll find information on this website: