November 4, 1918 — Wilfred Owen, one of the finest First World War soldier-poets, was killed in action on this day, exactly one week before hostilities on the Western Front came to an end. He continues to be admired for works such as Anthem For Doomed Youth, Strange Meeting, and Dolce Et Decorum Est.
During the war Owen’s brother Harold was an officer on board the British cruiser HMS Astraea and later wrote about “an extraordinary and inexplicable experience” that he went through while the ship was anchored off the coast of Cameroon:
“I had gone down to my cabin, stepped inside and to my amazement I saw Wilfred sitting in my chair. I felt shock run through me with appalling force and with it I could feel the blood draining away from my face.
“I did not rush towards him but walked jerkily into the cabin – all my limbs stiff and slow to respond. I did not sit down but looking at him I spoke quietly, ‘Wilfred, how did you get here?’
“He did not rise and I saw that he was involuntarily immobile, but his eyes – which had never left mine – were alive with the familiar look of trying to make me understand. When I spoke his whole face broke into his sweetest and most endearing dark smile.
“I felt not fear, only exquisite mental pleasure at thus beholding him. He was in uniform and I remember thinking how out of place the khaki looked amongst the cabin furnishings. With this thought I must have turned my eyes away from him. When I looked back my cabin chair was empty . . .
“I wondered if I had been dreaming but looking down I saw that I was still standing. Suddenly I felt terribly tired and I lay down on my bunk. Instantly I went into a deep oblivious sleep. When I woke up I knew with absolute certainty that Wilfred was dead.”
Harold learned later that 25-year-old 2nd Lt. Wilfred Owen had been killed while organising soldiers during a canal crossing at Ors in northern France, a week before the shipboard experience occurred.
A month before that, Owen had led his men in an attack on a German position, captured a machine gun and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. As a result of the action he was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.”
In England, as church bells rang out on 11 November, Wilfred Owen’s parents were celebrating the end of the war. It was then that the news of their son’s death reached them.
Published: November 2, 2017