Wilfred Owen and the old lie that's still told

Next Friday, July 1st, marks 100 years since start of the Battle of the Somme, the World War I offensive that saw over a million men killed or injured.

It is one of the most potent symbols of the horror, futility and destructiveness of war, of old-fashioned, walking into gunfire, dying for the gain of a few feet war.

The agony and despair and sheer overwhelming size of loss that the Somme represents on the grandest and most gruesome scale is captured most poignantly and effectively by the greatest war poet of all, Wilfred Owen.

Owen's literary and social importance cannot be over-estimated. Along with his friend and mentor, Siegfried Sassoon, he wrote not of the glory or war or the noble valour of the soldiers, but of the reality, the suffering and ultimately, the pointlessness. His were powerful messages and themes written for a patriotic nation not entirely sure it was ready or willing to hear them.

Owen joined the army in 1916 but his first term of duty was cut short when he was blown up by a trench mortar and spent several days unconscious, lying amongst the remains of a fellow officer.

It was whilst recuperating back in Britain that he met Sassoon and re-assessed his poetry in conjunction with the reality of war.

By 1918, Sassoon had been put on permanent sick leave from the frontline, and Owen too had the option to remain at home. Instead, he returned to France, not out of a sense of patriotism, but to write about the war, to try and convey what life was like for the soldiers being cheered and encouraged back in Blighty.

He did not tell Sassoon of his plan - his friend had threatened to 'stab him in the leg' if he made any efforts to return to the fray.

In his second term, he was awarded the Military Cross, but, tragically, on November 4, 1918, just one week before the signing of the amnesty, he was killed in action. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day itself, as the village bells were ringing out in celebration.

His complete works are here. And the entire volume is excellent. But, ahead of the Somme anniversary, allow us to highlight Dulce et Decorum est - one of his most moving works.

The Latin title is taken from the Roman poet Horace and means 'It is sweet and honourable'. In its original form, it was followed by '...pro patria mori', which means '... to die for one's country'.

But Owen doesn't conjoin the two phrases immediately. Instead he describes a gas attack on an already fatigued and injured group of soldiers. Owen watches a comrade die beside him:

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering choking, drowning

And then he challenges the reader: If you could watch and hear this man die, if you could witness the unspeakable horror:

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

The promised glory of the title has been exposed as 'The old lie.' Next week that lie is 100 years older.

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