This year is the centenary of the Armistice to end what Siegfried Sassoon called ‘the world’s worst wound’: the first world war. A bare week before the conflict concluded in a grey November, another poet, Sassoon’s friend and protégé Wilfred Owen, whose work now epitomises the waste and futility of that struggle, was cut down by a machine-gun as he tried to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal in one of the war’s last battles.
Owen’s sombre verse, the ‘poetry of pity’ as he called it, came to represent the disillusion and despair that set in as casualties climbed into the millions and the blood of Britain’s youth drained hopelessly away in the Flanders mud. For anyone educated since his work became part of the national curriculum in the 1960s, it sums up our national groupthink about the Great War: frightened boys going over the top to near-certain death; poison-gas victims coughing their lives up from ‘froth corrupted lungs’; shivering, whey-faced soldiers waiting for a stray bullet to end their suffering.
Owen was seen as a stainless knight whose feelings for the agonies of the men he led in the trenches matched his own modest provincial background. Only in recent years has rigorous biographical inquiry revealed a more complex, more disturbing, less likeable — in a word, more human — figure.
We know now that Owen at first welcomed the war, which he thought would ‘effect a little useful weeding’ of Europe’s multiplying lower orders. He was a social snob, despite his own background as the son of a minor railway official. Perhaps most shocking of all to his peace-loving fans, in the last weeks of his life he won a Military Cross for taking a German machine-gun, and happily mowing down the fleeing Hun: an incident eerily prefigured in his masterpiece ‘Strange Meeting’ when he writes: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’
Most troubling of all, in our paedophilia–obsessed society, are the indications of Owen’s fondness for young boys.