First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Wilfred Owen: Letters

To Susan Owen

4 January 1917
Address. 2nd Manchester Regt. B.E.F.

My own dear Mother,

I have joined the Regiment, who are just at the end of six weeks' rest.

I will not describe the awful vicissitudes of the journey here. I arrived at Folkestone, and put up at the best hotel. It was a place of luxury — inconceivable now — carpets as deep as the mud here — golden flunkeys; pages who must have been melted into their clothes, and expanded since; even the porters had clean hands. Even the dogs that licked up the crumbs had clean teeth.

Since I set foot on Calais quays I have not had dry feet.

No one knew anything about us on this side, and we might have taken weeks to get here, and must have, but for fighting our way here.

I spent something like a pound in getting my baggage carried from trains to trains.

At the Base, as I said, it was not so bad. We were in the camp of Sir Percy Cunynghame, who had bagged for his Mess the Luke of Connaught's chef.

After those two days, we were let down, gently, into the real thing, Mud.

It has penetrated now into that Sanctuary my sleeping bag, and that holy of holies my pyjamas. For I sleep on a stone floor and the servant squashed mud on all my belongings; I suppose by way of baptism. We are 3 officers in this 'Room', the rest of the house is occupied by servants and the band; the roughest set of knaves I have ever been herded with. Even now their vile language is shaking the flimsy door between the rooms.

I chose a servant for myself yesterday, not for his profile, nor yet his clean hands, but for his excellence in bayonet work. For the servant is always at the side of his officers in the charge and is therefore worth a dozen nurses. Alas, he of the Bayonet is in the Bombing Section and it is against Regulations to employ such as a servant. I makeshift with another.

Everything is makeshift. The English seem to have fallen into the French unhappy-go-lucky non-system. There are scarcely any houses here. The men lie in Barns.

Our Mess Room is also an Ante and Orderly Room. We eat & drink out of old tins, some of which show traces of ancient enamel. We are never dry, and never 'off duty'.

On all the officers' faces there is a harassed look that I have never seen before, and which in England, never will be seen — out of jails. The men are just as Bairnsfather has them — expressionless lumps. We feel the weight of them hanging on us. I have found not a few of the old Fleetwood Musketry party here. They seemed glad to see me, as far as the set doggedness of their features would admit.

I censored hundreds of letters yesterday, and the hope of peace was in every one. The Daily Mail map which appeared about Jan. 2 will be of extreme interest to you.

We were stranded in a certain town one night and I saved the party of us by collaring an Orderly in the streets and making him take us to a Sergeants Mess. We were famishing, and a mug of beer did me more good than any meal I ever munched. The place was like a bit of Blighty, all hung with English Greetings and Mistletoe.

As I could I collected accoutrement, some here, some there, and almost am complete; Steel Helmets, & Gas; improved Box Respirator, and cetera.

The badge of the Regt. is some red tabs on the shoulder thus (Regt. Badge). I scarcely know any of the officers. The senior are old regulars. The younger are, several, Artists! In my room is an Artist of the same school as I passed. He is also a fine water-colour sketcher. I may have time to write again tomorrow. I have not of course had anything from you.

I am perfectly well and strong, but unthinkably dirty and squalid.
I scarcely dare to wash.
Pass on as much of this happy news as may interest people.
The favourite song of the men is

'The Roses round the door
Makes me love Mother more.'

They sing this everlastingly.
I don't disagree.

Your very own W.E.O. x

CL, pp. 421–423

To Susan Owen

25 April 1917
A Coy., My Cellar

My own dearest Mother,

Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communiqué; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter! Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open. The Colonel sent round this message the next day: 'I was filled with admiration at the conduct of the Battalion under the heavy shell-fire.... The leadership of officers was excellent, and the conduct of the men beyond praise.' The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railwav embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway Cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy., 2/Lt. Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest be a 9 days' Rest. I think that the terribly long time we stayed unrelieved was unavoidable; yet it makes us feel bitterly towards those in England who might relieve us, and will not.

We are now doing what is called a Rest, but we rise at 6.15 and work without break until about 10p.m. for there is always a Pow- Wow for officers after dinner. And if I have not written yesterday, it is because I must have kept hundreds of letters uncensored, and enquiries about Missing Men unanswered [remainder missing]

CL, pp. 452–453

To Leslie Gunston

22 August 1917

My dear Leslie,

At last I have an event worth a letter. I have beknown myself to Siegfried Sassoon. Went to him last night (my second call). The first visit was one morning last week. The sun blazed into his room making his purple dressing suit of a brilliance — almost matching my sonnet! He is very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel'd (how's that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom. Last night when I went in he was struggling to read a letter from Wells; whose handwriting is not only a slurred suggestion of words, but in a dim pink ink! Wells talks of coming up here to see him and his doctor; not about Sassoon's state of health, but about God the Invisible King. After leaving him, I wrote something in Sassoon's style, which I may as well send you, since you ask for the latest.

The Dead-Beat (True — in the incidental)
He dropped, more sullenly, than wearily,
Became a lump of stench, a clot of meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet.
He blinked at my revolver, blearily.

He didn't seem to know a war was on,
Or see or smell the bloody trench at all…
Perhaps he saw the crowd at Caxton Hall,
And that is why the fellow's pluck's all gone -

Not that the Kaiser frowns imperially.
He sees his wife, how cosily she chats;
Not his blue pal there, feeding fifty rats.
Hotels he sees, improved materially:

Where ministers smile ministerially. *
Sees Punch still grinning at the Belcher bloke;
Bairnsfather, enlarging on his little joke,
While Belloc prophesies of last year, serially. *

We sent him down at last, he seemed so bad,
Although a strongish chap and quite unhurt.
Next day I heard the Doc's fat laugh: 'That dirt **
You sent me down last night's just died. So glad!' **

Next day

I am going to send you The Old Huntsman as a festive gift for the occasion of your First Publication.

'The Death Bed' is the finest poem. I told him my opinion. It is his own. This poem is coming out in the Georgian Anthology. He was struck with the 'Dead Beat', but pointed out that the facetious bit was out of keeping with the first & last stanzas. Thus the piece as a whole is no good. Some of my old Sonnets didn't please him at all. But the 'Antaeus' he applauded fervently; and a short lyric which I don't think you know 'Sing me at morn but only with thy Laugh' he pronounced perfect work, absolutely charming, etc. etc., and begged that I would copy it out for him, to show to the powers that be.

So the last thing he said was 'Sweat your guts out writing poetry!' 'Eh?' says I. 'Sweat your guts out, I say!' He also warned me against early publishing: but recommended Martin Secker for a small volume of 10 or 20 poems.

He himself is 30! Looks under 25!

So glad your proofs are done. How long now before I have my copies? That 'Farley Down' occasional verse did not impress me, I am longing to re-read The Nymph, & give it to Sassoon!

Would you mind sending me all the MSS verse of mine in your keeping as soon as you can get at them? How I want a confabulation with you in my Room With everything to hand!

Sassoon admires Thos. Hardy more than anybody living. I don't think much of what I've read. Quite potatoey after the meaty Morals.

You'll have had enough of Sassoon, what? Just one more tit-bit. Wells said in his last letter: hope you will soon 'devote yourself to the real business of your life, which is poetry only by the way' Poor Wells! We made some fancy guesses as to what he meant :-- Tract-writing? stump- oratory? politics? what?

Cheero! I'm well enough by day, and generally so by night. A better mode of life than this present I could not practically manage.

Yours, with affection, ever, W.E.O.

CL, pp. 487–488


In this letter there are several comments in the margin, where marked:

  • * Owen writes These lines are year's old!! against the two marked lines
  • ** Owen writes Those are the very words! against these two lines — i.e. what the 'Doc' said.