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(© Tijl Vercaimer CC BY 2.0)

Wilfred Owen hoped to survive the bloody campaign of autumn 1918 that brought the German army to its knees. In the year since he had been sent back from the Somme to recover from shellshock (PTSD), he had flowered as a poet, his work speaking with a passionate intensity of the horrors of the war, and the suffering of the men who fought. The first, posthumous edition of his work appeared in 1920, edited by his friend Siegfried Sassoon. It carried the famous preface that Owen himself had written in anticipation of publication:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.

The Preface shows that Owen was eager to see his poems in print. He was also excited by the prospect of literary fame: during and after his convalescence he had met H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Robert Graves, Osbert Sitwell and numerous other literati who had recognised his talent. Post-war life would have been exciting for a young man who had found his vocation in the trenches and was determined that the bellicose hypocrisy of politicians and jingoists would never again send millions of young men to be slaughtered in mud and squalor.

Owen’s poetry speaks for itself, and after his death helped to change the British public’s understanding of war. Arguably, it also altered British military policy, which in the Second World War was notably more sparing with the lives of its men. However, the story of his short life is told not in his poetry but in 673 surviving letters which constitute a vivid epistolary autobiography. Remarkably, most of them were written to his mother Susan Owen, who was not spared terrifying details of life and death on the western front.

Wilfred Owen was born at Oswestry in 1893, the eldest of four children. His father Tom was an assistant stationmaster at Birkenhead and Shrewsbury, and money was always short. Wilfred grew up an intelligent, sensitive boy with wide interests. He shared his mother’s strong evangelical faith. More importantly, he began to write poetry.  Having failed to win a scholarship to Reading University, in 1913 he took himself off to Bordeaux to teach English. He remained in France for two years, working mostly as a private tutor. He also met the poet Laurent Tailhade, who encouraged him to persist with his poetry, and impressed him also with his rejection of religion.

In 1915, Owen returned to England, joined the Artists’ Rifles, and was sent for officer training. He wrote to his mother:

The Army as a life is a curious anomaly; here we are prepared — or preparing — to lay down our lives for another, the highest moral act possible, according to the Highest Judge, and nothing of this is apparent between the jostle of discipline and jest.
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