Who was Wilfred Owen?

Who was Wilfred Owen?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

In Regeneration, Siegfried Sassoon meets fellow poet Wilfred Owen while at Craiglockhart Hospital. Nicholas Rice looks at the rest of Owen’s life and influences


Wilfred Owen was born in Owestry, Shropshire on 18 March 1893. His father worked on the railways, which saw the family move between Shropshire and Birkenhead several times while he was growing up. Owen studied locally and left school at 18, which was around the time that he was influenced by the works of Keats and Shelley and began writing poetry. He also found inspiration in the Bible, subscribing to his mother’s beliefs as a committed Christian in his early life. Owen had a strong relationship with his mother and many of his 664 letters written when serving in the war were addressed to her.

After leaving school, Owen began working as a pupil-teacher for a few months. His result was not enough to secure a place at university and he was unable to fund a placement. Owen left England and began tutoring in France, which is where he was when World War One broke out.

“I was a boy when I first realised that the fullest life liveable was a poet's.”
Wilfred Owen

IMAGE: Wilfred Owen. Copyright: IWM  


Owen felt disconnected from the war effort and was influenced by propaganda to volunteer as a soldier. On 21 October 1915, Owen enlisted in the army and, after training, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment and sent to the Front. He fell into a shell hole and suffered concussion; was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, and spent several days lying out on an embankment in Savy Wood. Soon afterwards, he was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart.

"My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity."
Wilfred Owen


It was at Craiglockhart where Owen developed a friendship with Siegfried Sassoon, who was also a patient at the time. Despite having written poetry for many years, it was only at Craiglockhart that Owen found his real voice, with the encouragement and guidance of Sassoon who was editing and helping to promote his work.  Sassoon’s poetic realism of the horrors of war was responsible for influencing Owen’s own work in poems such as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.

The therapy Owen received at the hospital also proved an important influence, with his psychologist Dr Brock encouraging him to express his experiences of war creatively. It was Brock who persuaded Owen to act as editor for the hospital’s magazine The Hydra, furthering Owen’s writing experience.

Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, front row, second from right. Officers of the 5th (Reserve) Battalion, Manchester Regiment. Copyright: IWM


At the very end of August 1918, Owen returned to the front line. Whilst attempting to traverse the Sambre canal, he was shot and killed. The news of his death, on 4 November 1918, arrived at his parents' house in Shrewsbury a week later, on Armistice Day. He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. He is buried in Ors Communal Cemetery, France. Most of Owen’s war poetry was published after his death.


Sassoon continued to promote and published Owen’s work after his death. Owen’s most well-known work includes ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Insensibility’ and ‘Strange Meeting’. His work continues to give generations today an insight into the personal experience of war, in a time before the existence of mass media and frontline reporting. 

In Regeneration, Wilfred Owen is played by Garmon Rhys. Regeneration opens at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it runs from 29 August to 20 September 2014. It then tours to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool where it concludes on 29 November.

Regeneration premiered on 2 September 2014 (previews from 29 August) at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it continues until 20 September 2014. It then tours to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool where it concludes on 29 November.