Experience and Expression : Wilfred Edward Salter Owen

Where did Wilfred Owen first see action?

The solid green line on the map to the right shows the position of the front line in the Somme region on 25 June 1916. The battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. The broken green line shows the front line  at 8 Oct 1916.  During that period Owen was still training in England. It can be seen that gains were uneven and lie mainly in an arc reaching from Thiepval towards Peronne.  In some parts the front line scarcely moved. One such section is at Serre. Highlighted  on the map by a star it is almost due north of Albert.

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The broken blue line on the map to the left shows the position of the front line as at 1 March 1917, eight months after the beginning of the battle of the Somme.  Comparison of the maps shows the gains of 1916 to have been mainly held but suggests the front at Serre was static. However, although apparently static it was far from inactive.  Serre is again highlighted  by a star. Wilfred Owen arrived in this seemingly static area early in January 1917.

The river Ancre, a tributary of the Somme, lies east of the road and railway running north from Albert.

Owen’s experience near Serre

The Location

As opposing armies halted a stabilised front emerged with opposing trench systems being constructed from 1914.

However, front lines were not entirely static. In 1915 there was significant fighting between French and German forces close to Serre. Subsequent German strengthening of their line created the Heidenkopf, marked with a star in the diagram below.

British forces faced this strong salient protruding towards the Allied line when, later in 1915, they took over this section of the front from the French.

The Heidenkopf was a British objective on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, but it was not gained.  A hard struggle to gain and occupy the area continued into the winter of 1916-17. Consolidation of the German front line placed the Heidenkopf in No Man’s Land. British efforts to occupy it were still being contested in January 1917.

Military records show Owen was there in January 1917. Soon his orders required him and his platoon to occupy and hold an abandoned dugout. From his letters home and later poetry we can be clear about their experience.

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A plan of Area 2 in the Heidenkopf is enlarged to the left. Excavations reported in 2005 show historic evidence of a dugout, artillery shelling and undermining by explosives.

 

Both plans are copyright. They are from a report entitled
‘BAYERN GRABEN’ & ‘HEIDENKOPF’, SERRE, FRANCE,
ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATIONS, February 2005, NML Report No.2.
They are “Reproduced by permission of No-mans-land:
The International Group For European Archaeology.”

The experiences

Extracts from a letter Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother. (No.480 in Wifred Owen, Collected Letters)

In a letter dated 16 January 1917 Owen wrote to his mother telling of a recent front line event. He and the men in his platoon were required to enter No Mans Land to reach and hold  an abandoned German dugout. His letter home leaves one in no doubt about the experience.

“I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.
I have not been at the front.
I have been in front of it.
I held an advanced post, that is, a “dug – out”, in the middle of No Man’s Land. ……………..
High explosives were dropping all around out and machine guns spluttered every few minutes. ………………..
The German’s knew we were staying there and decided we should n’t. ………………..
I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs during the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I am afraid, blinded.”

The expression of experience

The experience of January 1917 was retold in The Sentry begun at Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh and completed in September 1918 in France.

Extracts from The Sentry

“We’d found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell; ………
………. There we herded from the blast
Of whizz-bangs; but one found our door at last, –
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles.
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps ….
….The sentry’s body ……………….
We dredged it up, for dead ……….
“O Sir – my eyes, – I’m blind, – I’m blind, I’m – blind”

The poem concludes forcibly declaring our lights had long gone out.

Extracts from ©Wilfred Owen, Collected Letters,
edited by Bell 1985, 102 words from pp 213-214
By Permission of Oxford University Press.

Extracts from The Sentry and At a Calvary near the Ancre
are reproduced by permission of the Random House Group Ltd.

At a Calvary near the Ancre

Serre is near the river Ancre. Many Calvaries may have been destroyed or damaged during barrage and battle. Near the river Ancre there is a representation of crucified Christ – the Calvary. In the picture on the right the figure of Christ has lost a foot. One cannot be certain of Owen’s experience but the geography of his service and these Calvaries make it possible.

Experience of seeing a damaged Calvary may have given Owen inspiration for

 At a Calvary Near the Ancre”.

Owen’s poetic expression begins

“One ever hangs where shelled roads part.

  In this war He too lost a limb,”

It concludes protesting against clergy who seem to have forgotten their spiritual priorities.

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This picture is published with the permission of
Monsieur André Guerville

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The silhouette of this Calvary to the left shows the scrollwork is incomplete and damaged. The figure of Christ has lost an arm.  Calvaries were and are typically placed close to churches, roadsides and at road and lane junctions.

Churches, often on rising ground, could readily be used as redoubts. Enemies seeking to limit movement could bombard route junctions. Both actions imperilled Calvaries.

Other experiences and expressions in Owen’s later work

By early May 1917 Owen was affected by shell shock and was returned to the United Kingdom. Initially a patient at the Welsh Hospital in Netley, Hampshire he became a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh arriving on the 16th June 1917. While there he introduced himself to Siegfried Sassoon whose volume of verse, The Old Huntsman, was already published. Owen tentatively showed some of his own work to Sassoon who offered constructive criticism and encouragement.  As time passed Sassoon introduced Owen to other poets and Owen’s self-confidence began to increase. He had space to work at his poetry and some like-minded company. Throughout his period of hospitalisation, followed by light duties, Owen continued to write.

Exposure graphically encompasses the experience of merciless iced winds, misery of dawn, cringing in holes and frost fastening on mud and us.   In the bitter weather of February 1917 Owen had written to his mother telling her his platoon had lain in the snow and saying one of his men had frozen to death. Retrieving wounded men was next to impossible. Corpses could become carrion. Grown men felt disempowered. Both the poem and the letter express the severity and testing nature of the experience.

Dulce et Decorum Est presents its own grim picture of stooped, exhausted men marching asleep, hoping for respite, hoping to become beyond the reach of enemy fire. This harrowing scene with its prospect of calm is suddenly intensified by a gas attack leading to images of bulging eyes and froth corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer. It reflects experience of gas during January 1917 about which Owen had also written home. Disabled shows the immediate impact on the individual of losing limbs. It moves sensitively forward to imagine less obvious consequential deprivations. It reveals the long term, hard face of war.

In May 1917 Owen had written home telling of his journey by barge along the Somme. He was on his way to England. Written seven months later, Hospital Barge describes in its first stanza a calm and restful experience but that is a prelude to a time of personal struggle with conflicting expectations and values.

War and the Pity of War

Owen’s recovery progressed. He returned to light duties late in 1917. Again Owen had space to write and meet other poets. Owen’s ambition was to publish a collection of his poems. Writing in May 1918 he said his subject for an intended collection would be “War, and the pity of War”.  In June he was graded fit for General Service and he returned to France in late August. By late September and early October he was fighting with the 2nd Manchesters and was awarded the Military Cross for his part in a successful attack on the Beaurevoir – Fonsomme line.  Some four weeks later he was killed in action on the 4th of November when trying to cross the Sambre – Oise canal near Ors.

A posthumous collection of Owen’s work was begun by Edith Sitwell, continued by Siegfried Sassoon and published in 1920. In his introduction Sassoon writes that Owen’s poems, “speak for him, backed by the authority of his experience as an infantry soldier”. Since then many have come to share Owen’s graphic accounts of his experience and to share his expressions of concern, care and pity.

Charles Stiles 2015

Thanks to:- Oxford University Press – http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/#

                      Random House Group – http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/

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