Anthem for Doomed Youth

Anthem for Doomed Youth?

How was Owen involved in the war

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Originally, Owen did not intend to enlist in the British army, but following a visit to a hospital for the wounded, he decided, in September 1915, to return to England and join up. After 14 months of training with the Artists’ Rifles in various parts of England, Owen was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment on June 4, 1916, and posted to the western front later that same year.

The winter of 1916-17 was a particularly difficult time in the war—the Battle of the Somme, an Allied offensive campaign launched the previous summer, was proving unsuccessful. By November 1916, torrential autumn rains had turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, preventing Allied armies from advancing more than five miles and helping the Germans retain their seemingly impregnable positions in the trenches. Owen’s first task once he was sent to the front lines was to hold positions in No Man’s Land—the unoccupied territory between the Allied and German armies—in the Beaumont Hamel region in France; later, he was sent behind the lines for a transport course. Owen had a number of close calls in that period, falling into a cellar and suffering a concussion in March 1917, then getting blown into the air by a shell while participating in a successful attack on the village of Fayet in April. This action lasted 12 days, and Owen was forced to spend several of those days sheltering in a hole near the dismembered remains of a fellow officer.

Although Owen escaped physical injury, soon after the action he was judged “unfit to command troops” and diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia—”shell shock,” or what today is called posttraumatic stress disorder. Many soldiers, including Owen’s contemporary and fellow war poet Robert Graves, suffered from “shell shock,” which involved symptoms such as sporadic fits of uncontrollable weeping, twitching, voiding of the bowels, nightmares, and periodic depression. Owen was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, a facility famous for its treatment of shell shock victims. While at Craiglockhart, Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, an older poet who not only helped Owen with poetry but also influenced him to adopt a more critical view of England’s role in the war. Both Owen and Sassoon contributed to the Hydra, a literary magazine produced by the patients at Craiglockhart. Owen even took over the editorship of the magazine for the issue of August 4, 1917.

Discharged from Craiglockhart in November 1917, Owen was posted to Scarborough to take charge of the domestic affairs of a large hotel that was being used as a barracks, then later to Ripon. Much of Owen’s war poetry was composed during that time. By August 1918, Owen was judged fit for active duty, and he returned to the front lines in France. Although he suspected he might not return alive from the war, he accepted his probable fate calmly and led his troops with an increased confidence and authority. In early October 1918, shortly before he was awarded the Military Cross, England’s equivalent of the Purple Heart, for capturing a German machine-gun emplacement and turning it upon the enemy, Owen wrote to his mother, “I came out in order to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first” (Owen, War Poems and Others, p. 107). On November 4, 1918, just one week before the armistice, Owen was killed while leading his men across the Sambre Canal near Ors, France. He was 25 years old at the time. The bells in his home town in Shropshire were ringing on November 11, 1918, in celebration of the armistice when the doorbell buzzed at his parents’ home, bringing them the telegram with news of their son’s death.

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