Wilfred Owen, born in 1893, he was twenty-two years old by 1915 when he joined the British army and was dead before his twenty-sixth birthday, one week before Armistice Day.[1] This was of course common, with the Great War being accredited for creating the lost generation.[2] The war depicted on the home front and the war the men on the western front experienced were two quite separate entities.[3] The soldiers had their own history, which portrayed the harsh realities of trench warfare with its string of failed assaults and memories of fallen friends. Warfare for soldiers was very different from the patriotic images and poems which were used to entice the young men to take the King’s shilling and cross the channel.[4] Wilfred Owen displayed the war in his works, using grim realism to create the sense of despair and horror for all those who read them. This essay shall be looking at one of his most powerful pieces, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ published posthumously by Siegfried Sassoon two years after the war in 1920.[5]

Before looking at the language of the poem itself, the structure should firstly be analysed. The style of writing is that of a sonnet and a sonnet is traditionally for the purpose of expressing love, this stylistic approach was adopted by Wilfred Owen ironically stating how the tone of the war mirrored only death.

There are several key themes which are prominent throughout the ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, religion, hopelessness, the brutality of war and the growing disillusionment with the war. By 1914 there was a belief that Britain had been in an extended period of peace as the wars since 1850 had been brief and at the periphery of the lives of the average Briton.[6] The outbreak of the war was welcomed as the population was certain that it would be over by Christmas.[7] The image of war had altered, to something which portrayed a false image of its effects, the horrors of the industrial age upon warfare had yet to be experienced. The very idea of war had become imagined and with no reality check to correct the assumptions of the masses war became idealised through patriotic discourse.[8] There was a well-established tradition that “’Patriotism’ explicitly rejects the use and standards of reason on the part of the ordinary citizen in relation to matters of war”.[9] The trench warfare of the battlefield tore young Englishmen’s assumptions apart and turned their long held belief in the nobility of battle into a terrifying mockery. The rosy haze of patriotism was washed away under a hail of gunfire and the illusions that the war would be a procession marching towards Berlin to demand the surrender of the Germans was also realised to be nothing short of a fable.[10] Wilfred Owen displays the war absent of any such rose tinted spectacles; the images he creates inside the reader are vivid, brutal and full of emotive connotations.

The title chosen by Wilfred Owen, ’Anthem for Doomed Youth’, is deliberately contradictory. An anthem tends to be associated with a country, as an expression of national identity. However the use of the word doomed completely alters the meaning of the poem; national pride and patriotic images are replaced with ideas about the grim reality that men on the frontline are truly experiencing in pursuit of prestige for one’s own country. His use of language here is satirical, as his poem would best be described as a dirge, a song or hymn of grief intended to accompany funeral or memorials, and in this case the memorials of the lost youth.

The first four lines of the poem creates an atmosphere of hopelessness which ultimately engulfed every last soldier in the western front. With the soldiers being likened to as cattle diluting their importance as war heroes, individual acts of heroism are gone and those risking their lives are depicted as being lined up for slaughter, where is the pride in that?[11] In the same line he speaks of the ‘passing-bells’ for those who are being butchered, the passing bell is referring to the lack of acknowledgement for the men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. This is shown by repatriation being stopped very early on, due to the sheer scale causing it to be no longer viable and adds to the despair and the fear of what will happen to your body if you fall in no man’s land.[12]

Wilfred Owen describes the acts of soldiers being almost drowned out by the noise of battles, with the new mechanised war machines adding to the orchestra which was the western front. The industrial revolution which mechanicalised society did not ignore war, with huge scientific advancements all in the aid of killing ensuring that the efficiency of the killing, which David Paul Crook states the artillery and mines attributes many of the deaths to chance not down to heroism.[13] The ‘Monstrous anger of the guns’, personifies the killing power of the weaponry, shifting the blame onto the weapons, absolving their counterparts of any blame in their plight.[14] Technological advancements are a key theme in the first few lines of the poem, ‘Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’ speaks of the increased intensity which weapons now operate at, also refers to the increased rhythm and tempo which the war displayed. Honour and prestige died in the trenches, the use of heavy artillery, gas and flamethrowers destroyed the chivalrous element of warfare, these technological advancements are described to be louder and so powerful that it could drown out the soldiers prayers.[15] This description only adds to the sense of dread which was experienced by the men in the trenches and the feeling of hopelessness they would have suffered on a daily basis.

The experiences soldiers had in the trenches with regards to corpses was undoubtedly a factor which influences how Wilfred Owen, himself a soldier, sees death. No ceremonies, no recognition and no songs of mourning to mark the passing of the soldiers, only relegating the position of the men to a mere cog in the war machine.[16] There were problems with burying the men who fell in no man’s land, recovering the bodies was too risky an undertaking, thus the remains of fallen comrades literally littered the battlefield. Andy Simpson describes how even those who had managed to be hastily buried near the front line “were all too easily disturbed by shellfire”.[17] The haste of burials described by Simpson implies the lack of respect given to the men in their passing, any formal ceremony was a luxury which was forgotten or ignored.

The final line of the first stanza stitches both the Home and the Western front together. The ‘sad shires’ hearing the call of patriotism from the bugle, an instrument associated with the military, calling for more men to answer the call of duty and experience the terrifying theatre of the ‘shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells’. The home and the Western front were physically close enough to hear the shots across the chanel, yet the experiences of the two were miles apart.[18]

The second stanza goes back to the idea of honouring the dead through religious practices. Wilfred Owen seems to challenge the worth of such sentiments, saying the most powerful and sincere way to acknowledge the passing of their comrades is to shed tears, which was the only way the men could say their ‘good-byes’.

‘The pallor of girls’ brow shall be their pall’, refers once again to the burial of the men, however it goes beyond looking at the men as it uses the female faces of sorrow and grief to replace the coffins of soldiers. This notes that the war may end a soldiers life which is so final, the ones left alive were going to continue to grieve which were the mothers, daughters and wives, who have directly experienced the loss of a loved one whether psychologically or due to death.[19] Ironically, the women who have to live with the aftermath of grief and death, were only able to play a limited role in their war because of gender constaints.[20] Guilt may be an emotion the women suffer aswell due to the their realisation of the effect they had in maintaining the supply of fresh troops, with much of the propaganda was aimed at women to tell their husbands to go as shown in the poster by E. Kealy with the famous caption of ‘women of Britain say GO’. As a counter to men’s growing disillusionment, women’s growing disillusionment with the war has become a topic of recent historiographical debate, which has centered around the ideas of feminist pacifism and their growing guilt at their role in encouraging men to fight.[21] For example, more recently the BBC attempted to make a documentary about the white feather campaign but only two women were willing to come forward and share their story.[22]

The final lines are perhaps the most powerful in terms of criticising everyone still willing to believe in jingoism as an ideology, attacking those who wave the flags but shut themselves away from the realisties of war. Much like in line 13 using the words, ‘silent minds’ implys that no one is speaking out against the war and no one is seeking out a swift and painless conclusion which was the general will of the people. This is a popular image presented by many prominent war poets, including Wilfred’s mentor Siegfried Sassoon who writes in his poem ‘Base details’, “when the war is done and youth stone dead / I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed”.[23]

Wilfred Owen’s poem, ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’, captures the feelings of society, through the lens of a soldier.. There was a growing disuillusionment, first amongst the soldiers who experienced this grim reality of the Western front and later amongst the home front; patriotic images which had spurred these men to war now appeared to mock the horrors. From the title, to the language and imagery, Wilfred Owen uses irony to convey his message with stark reality, war was no longer glorious. He uses religious connotations and the idea of burials to reveal the impact of mechanised warfare, which had brought death on a scale previously unimaginable. Horror, hatred, love and loss all immortalised in 14 short lines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Braybon, Gail, Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-1918, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2005).

Clapham, Marcus, The Wordsworth Book of First World War Poetry, (La Grange: Wordsworth Editions, 1995).

Crook, David Paul, Darwinism, War and History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Dowling, Timothy C., World War 1, Volume 1, (Santa Barbra: ABC Clio, 2006).

Evans, Suzanne, Mothers of Heroes, Mothers of Martyrs: World War I and the Politics of Grief, (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s Press, 2007).

Ferro, Marc, Great War, 1914-1918, (Florence: Routledge, 2001).

Grayzel, Susan R., Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War, (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 1991).

Hibberd, Domminic, Wilfred Owen: a new biography, (Columbia: Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

Neiberg, Michael S., Fighting the Great War: A Global History, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Owen, Wilfred, Poems by Wilfred Owen, (Fairford: Echo Library, 2007).

Remarque, Erich Maria, All Quiet on the Western Front, (St. Paul: EMC Publishing, 2003).

Robson, Stuart, The First World War, (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2007).

Runia, Eelco, ‘Burying the dead, creating the past’, History and Theory , 46 (3), 2007. pp. 313-325.

Simpson, Andrew, Third Edition, Hot Blood & Cold Steel: Life & Death in the Trenches of the First World War, (Staplehurst: Spellmount ltd, 2002 [first edition, 1993]).

Somerville, John, ‘Patriotism and War’, Ethics , 91 (4), 1981, pp. 568-578.

Stewart, Ken, Once We Lived, (Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation, 2010).

Tuchman, Barbara, The Guns of August, (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009).

Zeinert, Karen, Those Extraordinary Women of World War 1, (Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2001).

 

Appendix

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

 

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

 

Source: The Complete Poems and Fragments of Wilfred Owen (1984)

[1] Domminic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: a new biography, (Columbia: Ivan R. Dee, 2003); p.3

[2] Timothy C. Dowling, World War 1, Volume 1, (Santa Barbra: ABC Clio, 2006); p.51

[3] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front: With Related Readings, (St. Paul: EMC Publishing, 2003); pp.11-24

[4] Marc Ferro, Great War, 1914-1918, (Florence: Routledge, 2001); p.94.

[5] Wilfred Owen, Poems by Wilfred Owen, (Fairford: Echo Library, 2007); p.45.

[6] Stuart Robson, The First World War, (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2007);  p.4.

[7] Ken Stewart, Once We Lived, (Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation,2010); p.24.

[8] Stuart Robson, The First World War, (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2007);  p.5.

[9] John Somerville, Patriotism and War, Ethics , 91 (4 ), 1981, pp. 568-578;  p.568.

[10] Marc Ferro, Great War, 1914-1918, (Florence: Routledge, 2001); pp.94-95.

[11] David Paul Crook, Darwinism, War and History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); p.173.

[12] Timothy C. Dowling, World War 1, Volume 1, (Santa Barbra: ABC Clio, 2006); p.246.

[13] David Paul Crook, Darwinism, War and History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); p.173.

[14] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009); pp.20-26.

[15] Marc Ferro, Great War, 1914-1918, (Florence: Routledge, 2001); p.98.

[16] Eelco Runia, ‘Burying the dead, creating the past’, History and Theory , 46 (3),  2007,  pp. 313-325; p. 315.

[17] Andrew Simpson, Third Edition, Hot Blood & Cold Steel: Life & Death in the Trenches of the First World War, (Staplehurst: Spellmount ltd, 2002 [first edition, 1993]); p. 105.

[18] Michael S. Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global History, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2009); p.259.

[19] Karen Zeinert, Those Extraordinary Women of World War 1, (Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2001); p.21.

[20] Susan R. Grayzel, Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War, (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 1991); p.18.

[21] Suzanne Evans, Mothers of Heroes, Mothers of Martyrs: World War I and the Politics of Grief, (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s Press, 2007); p, 79.

[22] Gail Braybon, Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-1918, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2005); p.105.

[23] Marcus Clapham, The Wordsworth Book of First World War Poetry, (La Grange: Wordsworth Editions, 1995); p. 95.

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