A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

Wilfred Owen’s death, like his poems, captured the pity of war. John Walsh charts his journey from innocence to iconic status

It was a hell of a learning curve. In 1914, just after the outbreak of war, Wilfred Owen wrote a poem called “The Ballad of Purchase-Money”, which began:

“O meet it is and passing sweet

To live in peace with others,

But sweeter still and far more meet

To die in war for brothers.”

Three years later, that naive “meet and sweet” sentiment appeared, this time in its original Latin form – “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – as the title of a very different poem, which began:

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Manyhad lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind...”


It ended with a passionate rejection of the sentiment (from the Latin poet Horace) that there is anything meet, sweet or honourable about dying for your country. Owen’s dark journey from naivety to disgust produced the war’s most famous literary effusion. And, by a terrible irony, its author died just as the conflict ended.

Owen was the son of an Oswestry railway superintendent. He was schooled at Birkenhead and Shrewsbury and, from an early age, was nuts about poetry. He revered Keats, visited the houses in which the venerated poet used to live, modelled his verse on his lush and clotted sensuality, and shared his fascination with death. Like Keats, he was to die aged 25.

Owen was in France when war broke out, teaching English. According to his biographer, Jon Stallworthy: “His letters of this period show no great interest in the progress, or lack of progress, in the War, except insofar as it affected the crossing of the Channel.” But gradually a yearning to take arms settled upon him. “I don’t want to wear khaki,” he wrote to his mother, “nor yet to save my honour before inquisitive grandchildren 50 years hence. But I now do most intensely want to fight.” On 21 October 1915, Owen was sworn into the Artists’ Rifles and in May 1916 he became 2nd Lieutenant in the 5th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. He left Dover on 29 December. In January he found himself in the stinking quagmire of the Somme, half-drowning in mud, deafened by artillery, crippled by dysentery, freezing, starving, blitzed and haunted. “We were marooned on a frozen desert,” he wrote. “There is not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death.”

Owen was hospitalised after falling down a well. When he rejoined his battalion in May, his CO noticed he was shaky, tremulous, confused in memory and unable to command. Owen told his sister it wasn’t a breakdown: “You know, it was not the Bosche that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call 2nd Lieutenant Gaukroger) who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand…”

Traumatised by exploded limbs, he was sent home to Southampton and thence to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, a forbidding and gloomy keep, for “special observation and treatment”. Nobody could have predicted what followed: a four-month period of calm and fulfilment.

At Craiglockhart, despite the nightly screaming of shell-shocked men remembering the killing fields of Beaumont-Hamel and St Quentin, Owen came into his own. He met Siegfried Sassoon, the most important friendship of his life, and Robert Graves, who proved to be a useful irritant. Owen’s poetry acquired a newly direct, scornful, challenging voice.

Helped by his new friends, he was published in national magazines. He drank in Edinburgh pubs. He met Arnold Bennett and HG Wells in literary London. He felt his life was happily under way. “I am a poet’s poet,” he told his mother. “I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.”

It wasn’t, however, enough. A stronger impulse nagged at his conscience. He had to go back to the war, and be with the men to whom he could give a voice. “I know I shall be killed,” he told his brother Harold. “But it’s the only place I can make my protest from.”

On 1 September 1918, he landed at Etaples, just as Ludendorff’s army ceased their advance on Paris and fell back across the Marne. Owen’s last letters to his mother show him in high spirits as he describes his comrades-in-arms and the local French girls’ gratitude for “La Deliverance”. He modestly records that his bravery in capturing an enemy machine-gun may have won him a Military Cross (which he was duly awarded). A curious elation that’s well beyond sympathy with doomed soldiers can be heard in his final pronouncements: “My nerves are in perfect order. 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 leader can. I have done the first...”

Read more: The troops from around the world that served Britain in WW1

The end came soon. On the night of 3 November, the 2nd Manchesters were part of a vital attack over the Sambre-Oise canal. At 5.45am, an artillery barrage crashed down, and when it ended Owen led his platoon to the tow-path. They found the far bank stuttering with German tracer fire. As the Royal Engineers struggled to construct a makeshift bridge, Owen steadied his men with words of encouragement. Minutes later, he was killed by a German bullet in the thick of battle.

The 2nd Manchesters and the 96th Brigade finally crossed the bridge. A week later, the war was over. All was finally quiet on the Western Front. And Wilfred Owen, the poet who most effectively voiced the true savagery of the First World War had become one of its final casualties.

As his parents answered the door to a telegram from the British Army, the Armistice bells were ringing their cheerful chime of peace.

Tomorrow: Germans demand peace

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum