The BBC broadcast a World War 1 drama in the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday, 2014. Entitled, ‘The Passing Bells’, it was about two young men, one German and one English, who join up under the ‘romantic’ idea of going to war to ‘have a go’ at the enemy.
Their beliefs are soon shattered though, when they finally see the true horrors of the Western Front.
Intrigued by the title, I looked it up and found that it was a reference from the Wilfred Owen poem, ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth‘. Owen himself, was killed on November 4th 1918.
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born on March 18th 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire, England. He became synonymous with poetry that depicted the true horrors of trench warfare, the conditions, the death and the futility of war. His writings, along with those of his mentor, poet Siegfried Sassoon, starkly contrasted the propaganda of the government, who, in a drive to recruit more troops and prevent morale from falling back home, painted a much ‘nicer’, cleaner picture of the war.
Owen did not enlist straight away. It wasn’t until 1915 that he would join and once at the front, he would endure many atrocities and witness the realities of the First World War. Being injured himself and suffering from shell-shock, he would spend some time behind the lines in hospitals, before eventually being sent to Edinburgh, a place that would change him forever. It was here, that he met his friend and mentor, poet, Siegfried Sassoon.
Owen would return to Flanders in August 1918. Two months later, he led an attack on the German lines. Following a serious injury to his commanding officer, he took charge and overcame an enemy machine gun. For this action, Owen was awarded the Military Cross for bravery.
The end of the war was in sight, and one month later in November 1918, the armistice was signed, and peace once again fell over the fields of Flanders. However, in a further attack, just one week before the cessation of conflict, whilst making the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, Owen would be killed, bringing this chapter of the young writer’s life to a final close.
Owen wrote many poems, and is considered one, if not the best World War One poet. He believed the government was more interested in the benefits they would receive from the war rather than the original reason of supporting their ally. His writings reflected the pity and futility of this war, and his memory is commemorated in a number of memorials around the United Kingdom and France.
The BBC series, ‘The Passing Bells’, refers to Owens’ poem entitled ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘ that was written between September and October 1917.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen (18/3/1893 – 4/11/1914)
Wilfred Owen is buried in the community grave at Ors, near to where he fell. He is remembered in memorials including the Poets’ Corner’ in Westminster Abbey, and in a stained glass window in Birkenhead Central Library.
His writings and his memory, unlike his body, will live on in perpetuity.
“We live in trenches.
Underground, most of the time.
And it’s cold and dark and…
…noisy and wet,
and you just spend every second
wishing you were somewhere else.
But there’s a now-ness
It’s like you’re seeing it
for the first time.
Like a blade of grass in the mud,
The sky is amazing.
You can smell the air.
Everything’s just more intense.
It’s like your brain’s
taking it all in…
…knowing it might be the last cloud
or blade of grass you’ll ever see…
…You see life…
disappear in front of you.
And, as it goes…
just how precious it was.
That’s why I want us
to get married.”
– Quote from ‘The Passing Bells’ (BBC, 2014)
The quote from BBC’s ‘The Passing Bells’ was contributed by Marcella Beaudreau @LadyOfShalottMA
orisons – prayers
pallor – pale / paleness
The Wilfred Owen Society have a website dedicated to the memory of Owen, and they include a number of photographs and discussion about his writings. If you wish to see the site click here.