Caroline's Reviews > Wilfred Owen: The Last Year 1917 1918

Wilfred Owen by Dominic Hibberd
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it was amazing
bookshelves: wilfred-owen, favorites, poetry

From the introduction, p 1
“On 1 October 1918 Wilfred Owen became one of the first Allied company commanders to break into the Germany Army’s last prepared defences. Soaked in the blood of his servant, who had been wounded in the first hour of the attack, he got his men through the wire and captured a machine gun, turning it on the enemy…
He was a very different soldier from the nerve-ridden casualty who had been sent home, shell-shocked and suspected of cowardice in June 1917. As a poet too, he was different: that June he’d been working on a sentimental ballad about knights in armour, but just before he went into the Hindenberg line he finished the last and best of his war poems, ‘Spring Offensive.”...


This book is Hibberd’s account of what happened during that final year to propel this twenty four year old man into the stratosphere of English poetry. It was first published in 1992. I’ve been reading it having read most of Owen’s poetry over the summer of 2013. Next year I’m planning on a buddy read of Hibberd’s longer and fuller biography so turned to this shorter account in the meantime. It begins in the early summer of 1917 with Owen, ‘trembling, confused and stammering’.

p10 “The doctor diagnosed shell-shock… and Owen was sent to a hospital at Etretat, where it was decided that the right place for him would be Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. Had the decision gone another way, some of the finest war poems in the English language might never have been written.”...

I already knew the bare bones of the story with Owen meeting Sassoon at Craiglockhart, who galvanised and catalysed him into writing of the war and on behalf of the soldiers who had no voice and nobody to speak for them. What Hibberd does in his careful meticulous way is to fill in as many gaps as possible so we see Owen going to the military tailor’s to order some new trousers - “his face tanned a deep reddish-brown and his bearing correctly military but he was a small man, under five foot six, and at twenty four still very young-looking, despite his little moustache and the premature streaks of grey in his close-cropped hair.”... p14

The book is full of photographs, like a family album and letters from Owen and drafts of his handwritten poems and a proof of Hydra – the Craiglockhart magazine with a copy of Song of Songs which he sent to his cousin Leslie Gunston with the comment ‘My first printed poem’.
The friendship with Sassoon unfolds and Owen devotes himself to writing. Sassoon provides an introduction to his literary friends in London where Owen’s ‘poems were discussed with admiration’. The reader discovers who he met, which paintings he will have seen and which books he was reading. The latter included the recently published Fairies and Fusiliers by Robert Graves into which Owen slips a picture of Graves taken from a magazine. There are some lovely touches. Owen is in the Poetry Bookshop when another customer asks the owner, Harold Monro who Sassoon is – “Monro looked across at Owen and winked. Owen winked back. It was the sort of moment he loved: he was in the know. ‘one of the ones’, a poet’s poet. He knew who to thank: Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!” ...p64

The book has a valedictory feel. There are final meetings although those present cannot have know they would not meet again – a family get together in April 1918 after which Harold (his younger brother) and Owen talk into the night although there is so much they can’t discuss including Owen’s homosexuality. More meetings in London with friends of Sassoon and plans for a book of Owen’s poems.
“Despite all the excitement, Owen’s plans never even reached the typing stage. Time ran out on him.” ...p116

He returns to France at the end of August 1918. His last complete poem, Smile, smile, smile is written and sent to Sassoon on 22nd September, together with ‘The Sentry’ begun a year earlier at Craiglockhart and a part of the Spring Offensive poem. Now maps of trench lines and photographs of soldiers on the battlefield dominate the book. The final attack begins just before dawn on Monday 4 November and Hibberd describes in detail what happened to the 2nd Manchesters trying to cross the canal, including Owen’s fellow officer, Second Lieutenant James Kirk. You can feel Hibberd giving due attention to all of them.
“It seemed impossible that anyone could survive, let alone reach the far bank… Seeing the need for stronger cover. James Kirk mounted a machine gun on a raft and paddled out… He was hit in the face and arm, but kept firing… Kirk was hit for the third time and killed… There is no eye-witness account of Owen’s death. ...

So is this just a book for Owen aficionados? Is there any point in reading it if you have little interest in poetry and what is in the book for the general reader? Well it is as much about his life and friendships as it is about his poems. In parts it reads like a detective story as Hibberd unearths facts but there remain things which are uncertain. During the spring and summer of 1918 Owen’s friends, including Charles Scott Moncrieff endeavoured to get him posted as an instructor in the UK rather than being sent back to France. What became of this is a mystery.
“Unless Owen’s files one day emerge from the vast archives of the Ministry of Defence, it will probably never be possible to reconstruct what happened.”... p128
The poetry is woven into the story as it should be and as it was his way of coming to terms with what he’d already witnessed while out in France. Hibberd’s writing is imbued with humanity. Owen was in a bad way when he reached Craiglockhart – this place of failures (Owen’s words). He was too afraid to go to sleep for dread of the nightmares that sleep would bring. Between them his physician, Dr Brock and later his friend, Siegfried Sassoon showed him that he could write his way out.

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Reading Progress

June 17, 2013 – Shelved
June 17, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
December 2, 2013 – Started Reading
December 2, 2013 – Shelved as: wilfred-owen
December 21, 2013 – Finished Reading
December 27, 2013 – Shelved as: favorites
December 27, 2013 – Shelved as: poetry

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