Wilfred Owen, a British soldier and poet who was killed on Nov. 4th 1918 on the Sambre canal which flows through Ors, is almost unknown in France, though he is the second poet after Shakespeare to be studied in Great Britain. He has become a « witness » of the Great War and mainly of its absurd barbarity which is underlined in his poems and his correspondence.
Wilfred Owen was born on 18 March 1893 at Plas Wilmot, in Weston Lane, Shropshire. He was of mixed English and Welsh ancestry and the eldest of Thomas and Harriet Susan (née Shaw)'s four children; his siblings were Harold, Colin, and Mary Millard Owen.
At his birth, Wilfred's parents lived in a comfortable house owned by Wildred's grandfather, Edward Shaw, but after the latter's death in January 1897, and the house's sale in March, the family moved to Birkenhead then to Shrewsbury where the family lived with his father's parents.
In 1898, Thomas transferred to Birkenhead again when he became stationmaster and the family lived there before moving back to Shrewsbury in 1907.
Wilfred discovered his poetic vocation in 1903 or 1904 during a holiday spent in Cheshire. In his youth Wilfred was a devout believer, in part due to his strong relationship with his mother, which lasted throughout his life.
Owen's's last two years of formal education saw him as a pupil-teacher at the Wyle Cop school in Shrewsbury.
In 1911, he passed the exam for entering the University of London. But not with the first-class honours needed for a scholarship, which in his family's circumstances was the only way he could have afforded to attend.
In return for free lodging, and some tuition for the entrance exam, Owen worked as lay assistant.
During this time he attended classes at University College, Reading.
His time spent at Dunsden parish led him to disillusionment with the Church, both in its ceremony and its failure to provide aid for those in need.
From 1913, he worked as a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux and later with a family.
later with a family. When war broke out, Owen did not rush to enlist - and even considered the French army - but eventually returned to England.
On 21 October 1915, he enlisted and in the for the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex.
On 4 June 1916 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant (on probation).
Initially, he held his troops in contempt for their loutish behaviour, and in a letter to his mother described his company as "expressionless lumps".
However, his life was to be changed dramatically by a number of traumatic experiences. He fell into a shell hole and suffered concussion; he was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, and spent several days lying out on an embankment in Savy Wood amongst (or so he thought) the remains of a fellow officer.
Soon afterwards, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock and sent to the hospital for treatment. It was while recuperating that he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter that was to transform Owen's life. Whilst at hospital, he made friends in Edinburgh's artistic and literary circles, and did some teaching at the Tynecastle High School, in a poor area of the city. In November he was discharged from the hospital, judged fit for light regimental duties. He spent a contented and fruitful winter in Scarborough, and in March 1918 was posted at Ripon. There he composed or revised a number of poems, including "Futility" and "Strange Meeting". His 25th birthday was spent quietly at Ripon Cathedral, which is dedicated to his namesake, St. Wilfrid of Hexham.
At the very end of August 1918, Owen returned to the front line - perhaps imitating the example of his admired friend Sassoon. On 1 October 1918 Owen led units of the Second Manchesters to storm a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. For his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action, he was awarded the Military Cross, an award he had always sought in order to justify himself as a war poet, but the award was not gazetted until 15 February 1919.The citation followed on 30 July 1919:
2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.