Wilfred Owen – along with his friend and mentor, Siegfried Sassoon – is now thought of as the poet who exposed the brutalities of trench warfare and the senseless waste of life caused by World War One. Owen spent only four months fighting and only five weeks in the front line, but the shock of the horrors of war was so great that he decided it was his task to expose the ‘Pity of War’, to represent in poetry the experiences of the men in his care.
He was drafted to France in 1917, in what was the worst winter of the war. After spending January to April in the trenches, he was sent to Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital for the shell-shocked where he met Siegfried Sassoon, a poet he admired, who encouraged and influenced him. Both poets were persuaded to return to the Front. In a letter to his mother Owen wrote: ‘I came out again in order to help these boys; directly, by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their suffering that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.’ Owen was killed on 4 November 1918 trying to get his men across the Sambre Canal. The news reached his parents seven days later, on Armistice Day.
Despite his views on the senseless waste of war, Wilfred Owen was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his courage and leadership during the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in October 1918.
World War One (1914–1918)
Wilfred Owen was particularly keen to make the public aware of the dreadful conditions in the trenches, where more than 200,000 men lost their lives in the Somme offensive. Amid the stink of the waterlogged trenches, men had to contend with lice, rats and disease, not to mention the trauma of watching their friends die and being constantly under attack themselves. Siegfried Sassoon had published a denunciation of the war which claimed it was ‘deliberately prolonged by those who had the power to end it’. This ‘Soldier’s Declaration’, published in The Times on 31 July 1917, is available at greatwar.nl/sassoon/sassoondeclaration.html – it was as a result of this (to avoid a Court Martial) that he was sent to the same hospital in Edinburgh that Owen was in. There he soon persuaded Owen of his view that the British government was deliberately prolonging the war, that the originally defensive motive for war had become an opportunistic one that ignored early possibilities for peace. Nonetheless, both men felt they had no option but to return for the sake of all their fellow sufferers.
In 1913 Wilfred Owen became a private tutor in France, a position he held until he enlisted in 1915. During this time he became acquainted with a French poet, Laurent Tailhade, who encouraged him in his poetic endeavours, just as Sassoon was to do later. Despite admiring other poets, Owen developed his own style, using Para-rhyme, alliteration and assonance in particular. This later influenced a new generation of poets, such as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender.
Apart from technical skill, his poems are characterised by bleak, unflinching realism, imbued with compassion for the soldiers. Dylan Thomas called him a ‘poet of all times, all places and all wars’ because of the way his poems exposed ‘the foolishness, unnaturalness, horror, inhumanity and futility of the war’.
‘Futility’ is one of only five poems to have been published in Owen’s lifetime. It shows the futility of warfare through the death of one man, who by remaining unnamed becomes universal in his representation of the dying soldiers. In it, we can see Owen attacks both the senselessness of war and the uselessness of God in his anger at his inability to save the life of his friend, whose limbs are 'still warm.'
L1 – The poem opens with direct speech, ‘Move him into the sun –‘ which lack speech marks. This command shows the ambiguity of whether the event is happening now or whether it is a memory.
The soldier is referred to as…