All Quiet on the Western Front may be regarded as the benchmark to anti-war sentiment surrounding the First World War and perhaps the greatest literary work on that subject. But a decade before, the poetry of Wilfred Owen lead the way with verses persuaded by PTSD, or “shell shock” as it was known then. Of all the poems of this English soldier and poet, the greatest is Dulce et Decorum est. Those who recognize this Latin phrase will immediately be struck by the intended irony when they read the poem itself, for the contrast between title and verse is inescapably wide. Taken from the ancient works of Horace, the complete phrase reads “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”, meaning “It is sweet and honourable to die for your country.”
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs, And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of gas-shells dropping softly behind. Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.— Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams before my helpless sight He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin, If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,– My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
A poet who went to war
While Wilfred Owen discovered his love of poetry at a young age, he spent his early working life teaching both at schools and as a private tutor. When war broke out in Europe, he was working in France but soon returned to England and enlisted in the Artists Rifles Officers’ Training Corps. While serving as an officer in the Manchester Regiment, he experienced first hand the brutality and senselessness of trench warfare which would become the inspiration for much of his war poetry. After an artillery barrage that left him “shell shocked” he was sent back to recuperate at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. It was during his therapy that his doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged him to write about his traumatic experiences and nightmares. He also developed a friendship with Siegfried Sassoon, another poet who would have a tremendous impact on Owen and helped shape his outlook on “the pity of war”.
The horrors of WW1
The First World War or the Great War was one of the deadliest global conflicts in human history with a combined military and civilian death toll of 21 million, with tens of millions more being killed in ensuing conflicts, genocides, starvation and epidemics like the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. One of the reasons for the enormous casualties was the advancement of military technology and the clash between old and new methods of combat. A cavalry charge was useless against a battery of machine guns, and full frontal infantry offensives quickly gave way to trench warfare, a slow, bloody crawl forward that cost hundreds of lives for every inch of territory gained. New weapons were developed to target the hapless combatants, some more conventional today like artillery guns and mortars, and others more insidious such as poison gas.
While poison gases such as chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas did not kill as many soldiers as other conventional weapons, the introduction and wide scale use of chemical weapons horrified both soldiers and civilians alike. Dulce et decorum est captures this sentiment with the vivid detail of a soldier unable to wear his gas mask in time, suffocating in the noxious green fumes, gargling blood from his ruined lungs. Owens ended the poem lamenting “The old Lie” of wartime propaganda, that there was nothing “sweet and honourable” in such a death. This line was directly aimed at Jessie Pope, a civilian poet who created recruitment propaganda, but was also intended for women who handed out white feathers to shame young boys into enlistment in the armed forces.
Death of the battlefield poet
Wilfred Owen was killed in action in France in 1918, just a week before the end of the war. He had chosen to go back to the front, despite strong protests from his friend Sassoon, and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in combat a month prior to his untimely demise at the age of 25. Dulce et decorum est was published posthumously, like many of his most acclaimed works such as Anthem for Doomed Youth, Strange Meeting, and Futility. He is supposed to have written it during his stay in the hospital, and the earliest manuscript bore a message to his mother: “Here is a gas poem done yesterday (which is not private, but not final).” Ironically, Susan Owen received the condolence telegram on Armistice Day, while entire nations were celebrating the end of the war. Her son would never know that he would come to be regarded as one of the greatest poets of the First World War. And though his death may not have been “sweet and honourable”, his life and works certainly were.