100 Years Since Armistice Day: Wilfred Owen

by CJ Verburg

The gifted young poet Wilfred Owen joined World War I with the Manchester regiment in 1916, on the Somme sector of the Western Front. This was no action-packed battlefield, but (as C. Day Lewis described it) “a desolate landscape of trenches, craters, barbed wire, ruined buildings, splintered trees, mud, the corpses of animals and men.” Invalided out, Owen wound up at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he became friends with the older and better-known poet Siegfried Sassoon. Their mutual horror at the glamorizing deception that had lured the best and brightest of their generation into this nightmare produced a staggering body of poetry, but did not stop Owen from returning to active duty in France. He was killed in action on November 4, 2018, a week before Armistice Day.

Dulce et Decorum Est


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.


Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


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


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 the 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.


Note: Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”