This is a powerful anti-war poem. It is set in the trenches of northern France during the Great War --
a.k.a. World War I -- and describes with graphic detail the horror of the war, especially the gas that
dissolved the lungs and caused the soldiers to die an excruciating and humiliating death by drowning in
their own blood.
Dying for one's country, the poet concludes, is in no way a glorious and honourable thing.
ABOUT THE POET
Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 in Shropshire to a family of committed Christians. He was educated at
the Birkenhead Institute and Shrewsbury Technical College.
Owen wanted to become a teacher but his father could not afford the university fees. Instead, therefore,
he journeyed to France in 1913 where he worked as a tutor. He also wrote occasional poetry, none of
which is particularly known.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, Owen maintained a vague interest in events through cuttings from
newspapers sent by his mother with whom he had a close relationship.
Eventually, however, the pressure of propaganda overcame him and, in October 1915, he returned to
England and enlisted. He was then 22 years of age.
The poet spent a year in training. Letters to his mother reveal that he enjoyed the prestige of wearing the
His training finished at the end of 1916 whereupon he joined the 2nd Manchesters in France where he
took command of No. 3 Platoon.
His enthusiasm initially abounded but soon he was sent to the frontline and witnessed firsthand the gross
tragedy of warfare: living in trenches which were forever knee-deep in mud and water, the rotting corpses
of soldiers, the dreadful war injuries.
"I have suffered seventh hell," he wrote to his mother. "I have not been at the front. I have been
in front of it . . . to where the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, three,
four, and five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water . . . "
Initially Owen's character and temperament did not suit his being a soldier. He was a scholar and a poet,
introverted and sensitive. Moreover, he was a committed Christian whose ideals were opposed to warfare
in any form. It was during this period that he appears to have penned most of his anti-war poems.
The war forced him to face a conflict between his Christian beliefs and his role as a soldier, a scholar
wrote. "I am more and more a Christian," he wrote to his mother in May 1917. "Suffer
dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed: but do not kill."
Late in 1917 Owen was sent home, suffering from shell-shock. While recuperating in the military hospital,
he fell under the influence of the anti-war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who aided him in polishing his war
Yet Owen appears to have had a distinct dislike for pacifists and did not want to be identified with them.
Indeed, he felt that his poetry could have a far deeper impact if emanating from a soldier in the trenches.
For that reason, therefore, he re-enlisted for the army and, in October 1918, he rejoined his company in
France. This time, however, he appears to have identified himself with the soldiers and took tremendous
risks in battle.
During one encounter, he captured a German machine gun and used it to decimate a host of enemy
soldiers, for which deed he won the Victoria Cross. Although he denied it in letters to his mother, he
appears now to have become a killing machine.
In early November, just one week before the armistice which ended the war, he supervised the
construction of a bridge to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal. Wave after wave of his own men were
massacred in the attempt. Wilfred Owen too fell in a flurry of machine gun bullets.
He was buried in a small British cemetery in northern France. He was then just 25 years of age.
Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:
"If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in."
- Identify the figure of speech in "smothering dreams". What is being compared? Why has the
poet used this figure of speech? (5)
- Who does "you" refer to? (1)
- What does the word "flung" say about their attitude towards the wounded soldiers? Why have
they developed this attitude? (2)
"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 the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues."
- As you read these lines, what can you see and hear when looking at the soldier? (4)
- Identify the figure of speech in "like a devil's sick of sin". What is being compared? Why does
the poet make this comparison? (5)
- Why are the soldiers' tongues described as "innocent"? (2)
"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."
- Who is "you" in the first line? (2)
- What do the words "zest" and "ardent" mean? (2)
- Explain why the poet regards the "glory" as being "desperate". (2)
- Sum up what the poet is saying in the last two lines. (2)