At 11am on November 11, 1918 the ‘War to end all wars’ was finally over. The guns ceased fire, the men in the trenches could, if they wanted, walk around in No-Man’s-and without fear of death or injury and the British people could finally celebrate the end of what was at the time the most destructive conflict in human history. In England the church bells, silent since August 4, 1914, began to ring all over the country. Anybody who didn’t absolutely have to be doing anything else was out celebrating. The nightmare was finally over.
But not everybody had reason to celebrate. Those who had lost relatives and friends were still in mourning, many houses were still decorated in black as a mark of respect to family members killed in action. Some, including the family of celebrated war poet Wilfred Owen, would answer the door to a Post Office messenger bearing a telegram sent by the War Office informing them that, on this day of all days, a relative had been killed in action. For these families November 11 would forever be a day for mourning, not for celebrating.
Wilfred Owen volunteered in 1915 for the ‘Artist’s Rifle Officer Training Corps’ for seven months of training and was commissioned in 1916 into the Manchester Regiment with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant (probationary). There was nothing unusual about that, newly-commissioned 2nd Lieutenants were in plentiful supply by then and there were always new ones joining the British Army. There had to be, the life expectancy of a new 2nd Lieutenant on the Western Front usually averaged a few weeks. Owen was luckier than many of them, he survived three years. But he wasn’t lucky enough to survive the First World War.
After enlistment in 1915 Owen was deployed to the Western Front with the Manchesters. At first Owen heartily disliked the men under his command. He despised what he considered their loutish, boorish, obnoxious behaviour and attitudes. What changed his mind was serving with those men in the tranches. Owen was traumatised by his first tour of duty. He was horrified by the casualties and narrowly escaped death several times, eading to his being diagnosed with what doctors of the time called ‘neurasthenia.’ The troops gave the condition a name that has passed into the English language. They called it ‘shell shock.’
Owen was transferred back to Britain for treatment and spent months recovering at Craiglockhart military hospital in Scotland. Craiglockhart was a stately home with beautiful gardens, constant peace and quiet and dedicated staff and facilities to treat traumatised soldiers. Psychiatry and psychology being relatively new medical specialities (repairing the human mind is never an exact science anyway) the treatments may sometimes have seemed primitive or rough and ready. But the staff did their best and the surroundings were perfect for trying to soothe the nerves and repair the mental damage of front line service. It was at Craiglockhart that Owen met his literary mentor and fellow war poet Siegried Sassoon, himself being treated for ‘shell shock.’ It was an encounter that would change Owen’s life and legacy forever.
Sassoon realised that Owen was a talented poet and encouraged him to write poetry centred around the war, its effect on human being generally and on Owen himself. Owen had been a poet before the war, but it was at Craiglockhart, with Sassoon’s advice and guidance, that his literary legacy began. Owen also made a number of friends in the literary and artistic scene in the nearby city of Glasgow which helped shape and mature his talent. By November 1916 he was passed fit enough to return to light duty, spending the winter of 1916 in the northern English town of Scarborough before being posted in march 1918 to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. His time at Scarborough and Ripon was perhaps the most creative of his life and he either wrote or revised some of his best work during that period. But Owen felt a pressing need to return to front line action. He abhorred war, but felt terrible guilt at being in a safe posting while men died in their thousands each day on the Western Front. So, at the end of August, 1918, he finally secured a posting as a platoon commander with the Manchester Regiment and arrived in France to finish out the war. From his arrival in France Wilfred Owen had just nine weeks to live.
Owen fought with the Manchesters right through until his death. He distinguished himself as a brave and, equally important, competent officer who never expected his men to do things that he himself wouldn’t do and had the military skill to carry out orders with the minimum casualties among his men. He was the kind of officer who could always be found in the thick of the fighting alongside the men he commanded which, during heavy fighting around Joncourt in October, 1918, saw him awarded the Military Cross although he didn’t live to collect it. On November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice, his bravery and loyalty to his men would prove fatal.
The Manchesters had been ordered to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal and Owen, as usual, was in the thick of the fighting, leading his men by example. On November 4, 1918, almost one week to the very hour before the Armistice began, 2nd Lieutenant Wilfred Owen (posthumously promoted to Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, MC) was cut down by a burst of machine gun fire as he was rallying his men. He was only 25 years old. According to his nephew Peter Owen, Wilfred’s mother received the dreaded telegram as church bells rang in celebration on on the morning of November 11, 1918.
It was Armistice Day.