Wilfred Owen fought for his country in World War I. At this time, the dominant ideology in Britain was that it was an honour to fight for one’s country. “The war was fought on a high point of patriotism and a belief in the existing social hierarchy…beliefs that the modern world finds hard to understand.” 1 “The vast majority of people fought in World War I or supported it with the ‘home front’ because they believed a victory for their country was worth the cost.” 1 The title of the poem “Dulce et Decorum est” captures the world view of the time. However, the poem does not reinforce this patriotism, it challenges it.
The poem’s representation of soldiers challenges the belief that soldiers were strong, heroic and brave. In stanza one, Owen’s comparison of soldiers to old beggars or hags and description of their uniforms as “sacks” dismantles Britain’s image of soldiers and instead portrays them as poor, weak and helpless. Additionally, The alliterative phrase “knock-kneed” emphasises the difficulty they face walking through the mud. Furthermore, "blood-shod" conjures images of horses being shod and which seems to dehumanize the soldiers. These images position readrs to understand the hardships faced by the soldiers.
Owen then exposes the gruesome reality of death on the battlefield challenged the honourable sacrifice mythology. To begin with, the underwater metaphor comparing succumbing to poison gas to drowning is created with "Floundering" and “I watched him drowning shocks readers. This is further developed with the use of onomatopoeia with “gargling” which is distressing. He also forces his audiences to understand the horror and also the long term impact of war as well. “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight/ He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” The nightmares suggest he suffers from post-traumatic stress. Owen uses his personal experiences to shock his British audience. The horrible effects of new technologies, such as chemical warfare were not part of the British conscientiousness but are brought home by Owen with evocative description.
Owen not only challenges the British people, he takes on those in powerful positions.
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent14 for some desperate glory,