November 11th is not just the day, in 1918, when the Great War ended but also the day when the poet Wilfred Owen’s mother, Harriet, was given the news that her son had died, shot in the head while crossing the Sambre/Oise canal exactly one week earlier. He was made a lieutenant on the day after his death. Mrs Owen received the telegram informing her of his death just as the church bells were pealing out the armistice celebrations.
Owen’s poetry is, in English-speaking countries, one of the main literary heritages of the Great War which has tended to ensure that many of us think of it primarily in terms of pity rather than of glory (though certainly official Remembrance ceremonies, not to mention the compulsory wearing of the poppy in official Britain, now extended it would appear to three or four weeks before the day itself, should remind us that “the nation” is still asking us to think in terms of somewhat more dubious concepts and categories such as heroism, gallantry and sacrifice).
War historian Hew Strachan reminds us that the slaughter of 1914-1918 did not always carry the same message that it (mostly) does today. “The war memorials and the war literature that today can seem the war’s most pervasive legacy in Western Europe did not necessarily carry the message of waste and futility that are now associated with them. The biggest memorial in Germany, erected at Tannenberg in 1927, trumpeted a victory. For many Entente veterans, Armistice Day was a focus for reunions and drinking, for celebration as well as commemoration. Wives and mothers were scandalised, unable to comprehend any response except overwhelming grief.”
Strachan also reminds us that Wilfred Owen’s huge reputation as a war poet was mostly established in the 1960s and after. “The first edition of his poems, prepared by [Siegfried] Sassoon in 1920, sold 730 copies. A further 700 copies, printed in 1921, were still not sold out by 1929. By then the collected poems of another victim of the war, Rupert Brooke, had run to 300,000 copies. Brooke’s view of death in war was of course quite different from Owen’s:
God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary.
Brooke did not die on a battlefield but on his way to one (the Dardanelles), making his exit from this world grown old and cold and weary courtesy of an insect bite from which he contracted blood poisoning.