On this day in 1918 twenty-five-year-old Wilfred Owen died in France, killed by machine-gun fire while leading his men across a canal by raft. While teaching in France in 1914, Owen began to visit the wounded soldiers in a nearby hospital; moved by their suffering and courage, he returned to England to enlist, and was himself fighting in France by the beginning of 1917. "I came out in order to help these boys," he wrote a month before his death, "--directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first." Many of his poems express his affection and respect for his men, as did the last line of his last letter, written four days before his death: "Of this I am certain," he wrote his mother, "you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here." An earlier letter home had mocked Horace's famous dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: "The famous Latin tag means of course It is sweet and meet to die for one's country. Sweet! and decorous!" In the summer of 1917, while Owen was being treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, all this made its way into verse:
. . . If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Another patient at Craiglockhart was Siegfried Sassoon -- sent there also for shell shock, but only because the army chose to classify him as mentally unsound rather than court-martial him for his anti-war declarations. Owen's discussions with Sassoon had a great influence upon his poetic development, as indicated by this last letter, written by Owen just before he returned to the front: "And you have fixed my life -- however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze." (All this has been well documented, most recently in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy; part 1 has been filmed and part 3, The Ghost Road, won the 1995 Booker.)
Owen was killed just one week before the Armistice. As his parents in Shrewsbury listened to the bells of the local church ringing to celebrate the event, they heard the door chimes announcing the telegraph which brought news of his death.