1. Young-Mason, Jeanine EdD, RN, CS, FAAN

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Few would challenge the claim that Wilfred Owen is the greatest writer of war poetry in the English language. He wrote out of his intense personal experience as a soldier and wrote with unrivaled power of the physical, moral, and psychological trauma of the First World War. All of his great poems on which his reputation rests were written in a mere 15 months.1


Preface by Wilfred Owen

This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.


Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion or power, except War.


Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry


The subject is War, and the pity of War.


The Poetry is in the pity.


Yet these elegies are to this generation, in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All the poet can do today is to warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.


(If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives-survives Prussia-my ambition and those names will have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders[horizontal ellipsis])


Written for a war poem collection Owen hoped to publish in 1919.2*



Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) is widely recognized as one of the greatest voices of the First World War. His self-appointed task was to speak for the men in his care, to show the "Pity of War."


Owen's enduring and influential poetry is evidence of his bleak realism, his energy and indignation, his compassion, and his great technical skill.2



Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born to Thomas and Susan Owen on the 18th of March 1893 near Oswestry, Shropshire. Upon the death of Owen's grandfather in 1897, the Owens family was forced to move from the house he had owned in Oswestry to lodgings in Birkenhead (1898) Merseyside, and it was in Birkenhead Institute that Owen's education began. In 1907, when Thomas Owen was appointed assistant superintendent for the Western Region of the railways, the family moved to Shrewsbury, where Owen's education continued at the Shrewsbury Borough Technical School. Upon leaving school at 18, Owen spent a period of months working as a pupil-teacher at Wyle Cop School. In the autumn, he passed the matriculation examination for the University of London but without the first class honors needed to gain a scholarship. Unable to afford to study, he worked as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading. In his spare time, he also attended University College, Reading, and is known to have studied botany and poetry. Between 1913 and 1915, Owen travelled to Bordeaux, France, and taught at the Berlitz School of English. He was actually tutoring in the Pyrenees when war was declared.


Increasingly aware of the scale of the war, Owen returned to England in autumn 1915 and enlisted in the Artists' Rifles[horizontal ellipsis] On June 4, 1916, Owen was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Manchester Regiment. In the last days of 1916, he was posted to France. In January 1917, he and his men held a flooded dugout for 50 hours under heavy bombardment. In March, he suffered a concussion and spent time in hospital. In April, he returned to the front again, only to be caught up in fierce fighting. At one point, he was hit by a shell blast at Savy Wood and lay semiconscious in a shell crater with the dismembered remains of a friend. On the 30th of April, while on parade, he was noted as being "shaky," and on 1st May, he was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock ("neurasthenia") and evacuated to England.


After a medical examination, Owen was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. There, he met Siegfried Sassoon, also a patient and already a noted poet. Owen was to gain immeasurably from the friendship that developed between them. Sassoon's poetic voice, with its strong emphasis on realism, influenced Owen's developing style, as the poems Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth demonstrate. This realism and emphasis on experience also played a part in Owen's therapy in Craiglockhart, where Arthur Brock, Owen's doctor, encouraged him to translate the experiences he had suffered into poetry. Sassoon both edited and vigorously promoted his work and brought him into a wider literary circle. As Owen recovered, he worked for a short time as a teacher in Tynecastle High School, before returning to light regimental duties, first at Scarborough, then Ripon. It was at Ripon that Owen "seemed to have composed or revised virtually all his war poems."


In June 1918, the 25-year-old officer rejoined his regiment and was again posted to France. He was awarded the Military Cross (posthumously) for his leadership and bravery during the attack on Joncourt on 1st October, storming enemy points and turning a German unit's own machine gun against them. On November 4, 1918, leading an attack by the Sambre Canal near Ors, Owen was killed in action. The news of Owen's death reached his family on Armistice Day.


Owen's poetry was promoted and published by Sassoon after his death and backed by Edith Sitwell, a proponent of innovative trends in English poetry. In 1931, Edmund Blunden's anthology of Owen's work sent his reputation soaring to new heights, and today, Owen is regarded as one of the most talented poets of the period. He is buried in a Ors communal cemetery in France.3



"Craiglockhart is perhaps the most famous shell-shock hospital. It was set up to deal with the epidemic of psychological casualties created in the muddy trenches of the First World War; and, in particular with the huge increase of casualties following the battle of Somme in 1916. The Hospital's fame is unsurprising in that two of the finest poets of a war over-flowing with poetic voices were treated there-Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. It was Sassoon who nicknamed the place "Dottyville" in a letter of 1917."4


In his essay, "Dottyville-Craiglockhart War Hospital and Shell-Shock Treatment in the First World War," Web chronicles the short history of Criaglockhart. He discusses commanding officers, several of whom were dismissed, revealing the differing views held by the war department about the treatment for neurasthenic patients. However, he highlights Brock's insightful approach to therapy. Arthur John Brock was an Edinburgh clinician and medical historian who was asked to join the staff because of his experience in treating "neurasthenia" before the war.



"The hospital's cognitive therapy existed within a complementary framework of an 'environmental' active and behavioural approach created by Brock, which he termed `ergotherapy' or cure by functioning. The shell-shocked needed, in his view, to rediscover their links with an environment from which they had become detached. They could only due this through active and useful functioning; through working. Brock played a central part in organizing many activities in the hospital to provide patients with a means of helping themselves back to health.


Perhaps Brock's most important tool, both to communicate his aims to the patients and also as a form of therapy in itself, was The Hydra, the hospital magazine. The Hydra, the many-headed monster whose defeat was one of Hercules' most difficult labours, was to provide a jokey description of the character of the hospital-the officer, or head, being removed (or discharged) only to be replaced by new inmates. It also provided a more serious analogy for the results of poorly carried out shell-shock treatment: the resurfacing of psychological problems in different, but equally distressing and incapacitating forms. The magazine was the vehicle through which the patients could express and share their experiences, as well as learn about the hospital ethos and activities. Brock's patient Wilfred Owen was editor of this monthly periodical for much of his time at the hospital, and had his first published poems within its pages. Indeed, Owen did not begin writing war poetry until Craiglockhart. This was due largely to his budding friendship with Sassoon, but also due to Brock's encouragement: that he direct his artistic eye over his experiences and not his fantasies, to approach a cure by functioning. Perhaps the most famous anti-war poem, Dulce et decorum est was written at the hospital in 1917."4




1. Roberts D. The War Poetry Web site. Accessed November 11, 2016. [Context Link]


2. Preface poem by Wilfred Owen on Wilfred Owen Association Web site. May 1918. Accessed November 12, 2016. [Context Link]


3. Biography of Wilfred by Stephanie Fishwick. Oxford University. The First World War Poetry Digital Archive. The Wilfred Owen Collection. The First World War Poetry Digital Archive hold copies of The Hydra. Accessed November 11, 2016. [Context Link]


4. Webb Thomas EF. "Dottyville"-Craiglockhart War Hospital and shell-shock treatment in the First World War. J R Soc Med. 2006;99(7):342-346. Accessed November 12, 2016. [Context Link]


5. Owen W. 1914. The British Library/The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate via First World War Poetry Digital Archive. 1893-1918. Accessed November 23, 2016. [Context Link]


*The Wilfred Owen Association Web site holds a wealth of information, including Owen's biography, Owen the Poet discussion, Music Commemorations, Drama, photographs, Educational Resources and Critiques of Owen's Poetry. [Context Link]