World War One Memorial, Biddesden House, Draycott Avenue, Chelsea, courtesy of Loz Pycock

Do Wilfred Owen's poems mask the "true fighting spirit" of those who fought?

Posted on on 17 February 2014
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Postgraduate poetry student Christian Groves asks whether seeing the First World War through Wilfred Owen's poems masks the true fighting spirit and patriotic passion of those who fought.

Christian Groves is a postgraduate student studying Poetic Practice at Royal Holloway, University of London.

He says: "Coming from a poetic background I am particularly interested in the ways in which the war is portrayed through poetry and how, today, most peoples’ impressions of poetry seem to be formed by Wilfred Owen at school.

"This has always seemed to me to be problematic given the number of poets who were writing during the war years.

"I was often taught that Henry Newbolt’s poetry depicting the war as a game was nothing short of stupid idealism. Whilst I do not disagree with the idea of it being idealistic, I do believe that the nature of jingoistic writing throughout the war provided the soldiers with a goal and a passion for their cause.

So my question is:

“Does our choice of Wilfred Owen as the central figure of war poetry mask the true conscience of those who fought?"

The death of Harry Patch in 2009 has rendered the actuality of First World War remembrance impossible. There are, quite possibly, still people who remember the victims, having themselves been too young to fight, yet it is likely, if they are still living, that they would have been too young to truly remember.

The fate of the war then, in historical terms, is up to those who are left and the legacy of the war is in the hands of those who choose to use it. This use of history was as true in 1914 as it is today in 2014 and whichever way we find to use it in the future will no doubt be problematic.

At the outbreak of the First World War and up until its close, Rupert Brooke led a nation of young men to answer the call and lay down their lives in sacrifice.

His poetry was just as loved then as it is treated with caution in hindsight. Several generations later and we are reading Owen and considering how naive our ancestors were to have read Brooke.

There is a degree of arrogance in our approach, an idea that had we given them Owen then they would have known not to fight or at best, better understood the consequences.

A lot of the problems with our understanding of the right and wrong ideas will boil down to whether or not we believe the war was necessary.

However, this is not where I wish to place my argument. The problem for me is in the remembering itself. Through 21st century eyes, which weep at Owen and scoff at Brooke, are we not looking at the war as we wish to view it rather than as the soldiers wished it to be viewed?

It is certainly true that there was suffering on a far larger scale than had been seen previously but then all suffering is tantamount to the individual in receipt. It is only the one with the ability to step back and see the larger picture that has a view of large scale suffering and then they will be party to a vision rather than an experience.

This, for me, is how Owen saw the trenches up until his own death and the only experience we gather as a result is his vision of war enveloping all others and our regard for the war and sacrifices made becomes blighted by innumerable suffering bodies strewn on a battlefield.

The problem for me is that, if these men died reading Brooke and hoping to be remembered as heroes, as they surely were, do we not mar their deaths by posthumously invoking pity?

This problem was tackled in Owen’s own poem ‘Disabled’, yet it seems to have been somewhat overlooked in order for ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to take precedence.

In ‘Disabled’ he describes the attitude towards those men who were injured during the war. He writes:

‘Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come?’ 

Here, Owen is describing a man who wants nothing more than to be recognised as he was prior to war. Pity is not wanted by the soldier who narrowly survived so it seems strange that we should want, so quickly, to burden it upon those who died.

I believe a lot of the fear of pride comes from the fear that it might awaken something archaic in our nature. That, should we at any point begin to understand the pride felt by those men who fought, we may ourselves be party to some deep seeded wish to martyr ourselves for future causes.

Such notions no doubt became more prevalent after the Second World War, when the mixture of propaganda and national pride was used to its monstrous potential. However, it seems a shame to allay our own fears of nationalistic pride by blurring our lens of those who fought with nobility.

One only has to read an anthology of First World War verse to see that, throughout the entire war, men still saw themselves as fighting bravely for king and country.

I will leave you with a quotation from Martin Stephen’s anthology ‘Never Such Innocence’ in the hope that it might make you think differently about how we reflect on the war and dispel the myth that we, as a nation, ought to take pity on the fallen:

‘The turning point, for me, came in an interview with a Norfolk gentleman-farmer who had served for the whole war with the artillery. He listened carefully as I waxed enthusiastic about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. 

Yes, he agreed, they were fine men, and fine poets. 

But, he added, I was not to think that they were altogether representative. He asked if I had ever watched the ceremonies on Armistice Day. Had I ever wondered what it was that drew those increasingly ancient men out of their beds, and make them re-unite every year at chronic risk of life and health? He was like them.

He remembered the war with sadness, sometimes with repulsion, but more often with pride. They had taken on the most professional army in Europe, and beaten it in a fair fight.’

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