Early Years

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born in 1893 at Plas Wilmot, Western Lane in the town of Oswestry to parents Thomas and Harriet. He was the eldest of four children and lived at Plas Wilmot for just over four years before his grandfather, Harriet’s father, who had been the financial mainstay of the family died. Owen’s parents were forced to move into rented accommodation in the back streets of Birkenhead where Thomas Owen briefly worked for the local railway company before transferring to Shrewsbury in April 1897. Here they family lived with Thomas’s parents in Canon Street.

Wilfred Owen began to read and write poetry from a young age and being very close to his mother took an interest in religion. His parents were not at all well off and could not afford to send him to public school and when he failed to win a scholarship to the University of London he was forced to look for work. In 1911 aged just 18 he was employed as an assistant to a clergyman in the village of Dunsden near Reading and spent his spare time studying botany and poetry at the University of Reading.

In 1913 he returned home, seriously ill with a respiratory infection that his living in a damp, unheated room at the vicarage had exacerbated and after recovery decided to work as a private teacher travelling to France and working for one year at the Berlitz School of English in Bordeaux before spending another year tutoring two boys from a French Catholic family. It was whilst he was in France that war was declared.

War Service

Artists Rifle Emblem

Owen returned to England in autumn 1915 and enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles. His training was completed in Hare Hall Camp in Essex. In March 1916, he began an officers’ training course and in June 1916, he was commissioned to serve with 2nd Manchester Regiment.

It was December 29th, 1916 when Owen was first shipped out to France and he spent the first four months of his duty moving in and out of the front line. Owen wrote to his mother “I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it.”

Manchester Regimental Badge

Owen’s regiment suffered a torrid time over the four months and on May 2nd, 1917 he was diagnosed with shell shock and therefore unable to lead his troops. He was sent to Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart Hospital which specialised in treating those suffering from the psychological trauma of modern warfare.

It was whilst in Craiglockhart that he met one of his literary heroes Siegfried Sassoon who arrived in July and within a month, Owen had introduced himself to his already published and well-known fellow patient. Soon Owen was showing his work regularly to Sassoon (Remember the handwritten suggestions on the draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth). Owen published his work in the hospital journal, The Hydra and he met, through Sassoon, several other writers and poets, including Robert Graves.

Sassoon was the strongest of Owen’s wartime influences encouraging Owen to explore the symptoms of shell-shock – flashbacks, recurrent and repetitive nightmares, and his inability to escape an obsessive concern with memories of battle – within his poetry.

Drawing by Annette Burgoyne

Owen returned to his regiment in November 1917 but did not return to France until the middle of the next year. However, he wrote extensively during this period, revising and rewriting poems already begun, and beginning many new works. He published several poems in critically acclaimed literary journals during the first half of 1918.

Owen returned to his regiment in November 1917 but did not return to France until the middle of the next year. However, he wrote extensively during this period, revising and rewriting poems already begun, and beginning many new works. He published several poems in critically acclaimed literary journals during the first half of 1918.

 

On his return to the front at Joncourt (October 1918) he took part in the attacks that broke the Hindenburg Line and was awarded the Military Cross (posthumously) for his leadership and bravery during the attack on Joncourt on the 1st October, storming enemy points and turning a German unit’s own machine gun against them.

Very early in the morning of the 4th November, Owen was killed attempting to lead his troops across the Sambre-Oise Canal at Ors. The news of his death reached his parents’ house via a telegram on the morning of the 11th November 1918 just hours after the signing of the Armistice.