First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Biography of Wilfred Owen (1893–1918)

Owen was born on 18th March 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire, son of Tom and Susan Owen. After the death of his grandfather in 1897 the family moved to Birkenhead (Liverpool).

His education began at the Birkenhead Institute, and then continued at the Technical School in Shrewsbury when the family were forced to move there in 1906–7 when his father was appointed Assistant Superintendent for the Western Region of the railways. Already displaying a keen interest in the arts, Owen's earliest experiments in poetry began at the age of 17. After failing to attain entrance to the University of London, he spent a year as a lay assistant to the Revd. Herbert Wigan at Dunsden before leaving for Bordeaux, France, to teach at the Berlitz School of English.

During the latter part of 1914 and early 1915 Owen became increasingly aware of the magnitude of the War and he returned to England in September 1915 to enlist in the Artists' Rifles a month later. He received his commission to the Manchester Regiment (5th Battalion) in June 1916, and spent the rest of the year training in England.

1917 in many ways was the pivotal year in his life, although it was to prove to be his penultimate. In January he was posted to France and saw his first action in which he and his men were forced to hold a flooded dug-out in no-man's land for fifty hours whilst under heavy bombardment. In March he was injured with concussion but returned to the front-line in April. In May he was caught in a shell-explosion and when his battalion was eventually relieved he was diagnosed as having shell-shock ('neurasthenia'). He was evacuated to England and on June 26th he arrived at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh.

Had Owen not arrived at the hospital at that time one wonders what might have happened to his literary career, for it was here that he met Siegfried Sassoon who was also a patient. Sassoon already had a reputation as a poet and after an awkward introduction he agreed to look over Owen's poems. As well as encouraging Owen to continue, he introduced him to such literary figures as Robert Graves (a friend of Sassoon's) which in turn, after his release from hospital, allowed Owen to mix with such luminaries as Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells.

The period in Craiglockhart, and the early part of 1918, was in many ways his most creative, and he wrote many of the poems for which he is remembered today. In June 1918 he rejoined his regiment at Scarborough and then in August he returned to France. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at Amiens, but was killed on the 4th November whilst attempting to lead his men across the Sambre canal at Ors. The news of his death reached his parents on November 11th 1918, the day of the armistice.

Dr. Stuart Lee, 1997