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Wilfred Owen - Birkenhead’s famous war poet

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 November 2017

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Granger/REX/Shutterstock (8762217a)
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). English Poet. Photograph, Early 20th Century.
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918).

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Granger/REX/Shutterstock (8762217a) Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). English Poet. Photograph, Early 20th Century. Wilfred Owen (1893-1918).

Copyright (c) 1900 Shutterstock. No use without permission.

Remembrance Day is particularly poignant in Birkenhead where one of the town’s famous sons is a much-loved war poet. Paul Mackenzie reports.

File photo dated 25/09/16 of troops of the British XIV Corps, advancing near Ginchy, during the Battle of Morval, part of the Somme Offensive during World War I, as new research shows that Tommies spent less than half their time at the front, despite the First World War conjuring up images of soldiers dug into trenches. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday February 19, 2016. The surprising finding was made in the first major academic crowdsourcing project, which saw some 27,000 volunteers contribute to Operation War Diary research about the 1914-18 war. See PA story HISTORY War. Photo credit should read: PA WireFile photo dated 25/09/16 of troops of the British XIV Corps, advancing near Ginchy, during the Battle of Morval, part of the Somme Offensive during World War I, as new research shows that Tommies spent less than half their time at the front, despite the First World War conjuring up images of soldiers dug into trenches. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday February 19, 2016. The surprising finding was made in the first major academic crowdsourcing project, which saw some 27,000 volunteers contribute to Operation War Diary research about the 1914-18 war. See PA story HISTORY War. Photo credit should read: PA Wire

Susan Owen didn’t like Birkenhead much. She moved there when her husband Thomas got a job at Woodside Station in the 1890s and wasn’t impressed at the changes in her life the move brought about. In her previous home she’d had a large, well-appointed rural home and staff. There was none of that in Birkenhead.

She might appreciate the place a little more if she were to re-visit today though, particularly the museum dedicated to her son Wilfred, arguably thought of now as Britain’s most famous and best-loved war poet.

As a boy, Wilfred was a pupil at Birkenhead Institute and it was during his time there that he began writing poetry. But it’s his later work that has endured and that he is now remembered for – poems such as Dulce et Decorum Est, Anthem for Doomed Youth and Strange Meeting, which hide nothing of the awful things he experienced during World War One.

Owen was born in Oswestry and after his time in Birkenhead he took posts as a lay preacher near Reading and as a private English teacher for a family in France.

In October 1915 he enlisted in the 3/28th London Regiment which soon became the 2nd Artists Rifles Officers Training Corps and over the next year he was trained as a soldier at camps around England, including a couple of spells across the Mersey in Southport.

Weeks after leaving the North West he was in the front line in France just yards from a Howitzer gun as it mounted a 48 hour bombardment of the enemy who responded with a barrage of their own. Days later he took half of his platoon to occupy a former German bunker in No Man’s Land and a sentry under his command was blinded during the bombardment.

Owen spent two more months in the front line during which time he endured horrific conditions and witnessed unimaginable horrors. He also almost suffered frostbite, was concussed in a fall and fought in some ferocious battles. After one battle, Owen was caught in an explosion after which soldiers reported him acting rather strangely. He was invalided back to England with shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh.

While he was there, Owen met several people who had a dramatic impact on his life, particularly the established poet Siegfried Sassoon who showed him how poetry could be used to show the true horror of war to contrast with the sentimental writing of non-combatants who glorified the war. Sassoon was angered by their attitude and his fury rubbed off on Owen, whose writing changed dramatically after his time in hospital.

In June 1918 he was judged to be fit enough to return to the conflict but five months later he was dead. Just a week before the war ended he was shot as he led his men across the Sambre-Oise Canal. News of his death reached his family in Shrewsbury as the bells were pealing to celebrate Armistice Day.

His tragically short life is now chronicled at the Wilfred Owen Story on Argyle Street in Birkenhead, which also celebrates the body of work he left behind. The museum was founded in 2011 by Wirral singer-songwriter Dean Johnson who wrote the musical Bullets and Daffodils, which traces Owen’s life from school to the Somme, and which will be performed there on Remembrance Day, November 11.

Dean said: ‘It didn’t feel right just taking Owen’s words on the road as a commercial venture, I wanted them to feed back in to where it began. Birkenhead was a really important landmark for Owen but there was very little here to show that. I wanted to gather things together in one place to promote him and his story.

‘People here do feel he’s one of our own, even though he was born in Oswestry, he spent nine years here. Since the Wilfred Owen Story opened we have raised his profile in the town and people are very proud of him.’

Dean is another former pupil of Birkenhead Institute, but he added: ‘Back then I didn’t grasp the importance of Owen. The school had one of his caps on display and a prize he won for poetry but I was only half listening at school. When I became a songwriter in my late teens I started to look back and realised how revolutionary he was. I believe there’s a case to be made for Owen being the founder of modern poetry as we know it today.

‘He wanted to use his poetry to tell the stories of the men he was leading – the real stories of everything they were having to encounter, not the white-washed versions people back home were being told. Now we are telling his story.’

Much of the research has been done by Janet Holmes, who said: ‘Between us we realised Owen spent the longest part of his life in Birkenhead but there is very little about him in the area.

‘We could have become a war museum. When we first opened so many people donated artefacts from the war but we wanted to keep it to the words. At the beginning we could have filled the place with shrapnel, but for us it’s about the personal stories.’

There has been a huge surge in interest in the First World War around its centenary and that is likely to continue as we approach the 100th anniversary of the armistice 12 months from now.

In Birkenhead, it will be marked with a special exhibition which is still being planned and Janet – a ceramic artist at the Rathbone Studio just along Argyle Street, when she’s not taking her turn at the museum – is also hoping to give talks about Owen in local schools and to extend the museum’s collection into empty shops around the town.

‘I didn’t do war poetry at school,’ she added. ‘I always preferred the Mersey Poets like Roger McGough, but it is fascinating how Owen’s poetry changed during the war. Initially he was very influenced by Romantic poets such as Shelley but his later work is some the best war poetry. It’s non-judgmental and still very relevant today.

‘We have tried give a full picture of what happened to him and we do have things he would have taken with him, as well as a uniform like the one he would have worn and lots of things that people have donated. And we have all his poems and books about his life, of course.’

During his life Owen’s poetry was published in poetry anthologies and The Hydra, the journal of the Craiglockart War Hospital, which he edited. The first issue of Owen’s collected works, the Poems of Wilfred Owen, was published in December 1920, with an introduction by his great mentor Sassoon.

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