14th February, 1914
He was a young, poor lad, shy, and quiet, who had returned home having recently studied Old English at University College, Reading followed by a stint at teaching French ... in Bordeaux of all places. Smart? Whip-smart, but you would never know, looking at the boy, because in a pub he would be the fellow in the back, reading a book, and not the one with a pint in his hand, a friend to all, easy-going and at ease with everyone and in every conversation.
His name, if it mattered to anybody, was Wilfred Owen.
She was from a well-to-do family in Shropshire, which wasn't saying much, but it still said a great deal, as nobody was well-to-do anymore in these hard times when everybody had to give up everything for the War Effort, but still her family got by and prospered and were good and patriotic and supportive of Our Boys on the Front in the War with Germany, and now the whole World at war. Her family was in commerce and in law, and they prospered, and they had family in the New World doing very well in finance or banking or some-such and were much talked about in Shropshire, that they had relations in the States doing well.
Her name, which need not be mentioned, because everyone knew her by sight, was Elizabeth Hale.
So it was a very odd thing, indeed, to see them walking along, side-by-side along the railway tracks that went through town, because Wilfred and Elizabeth were literally from opposite sides of the tracks, and they would've never have been seen together.
But Wilfred had surprised himself, showing up at the Hale's door, boldly, timidly, knocking at it, and when asked, quite coolly, what his business was, informed the family that he was going off to the War tomorrow morning and would Miss Elizabeth possibly consider going on a ... perhaps a ...
He saw the stony faces of the Hale family and of their servants, all looking at this destitute boy in the browns of the Royal Army, and was already turning to leave, an apology on his lips for their time and trouble, when Elizabeth surprised everyone, herself included, himself even more, by saying, "Going on a walk? That would be lovely."
Upon received the nod from her parents she slipped into a shawl against the cold damp and accepted the offered arm of the young Second Lieutenant of the Manchester Regiment.
The walk wasn't lovely at all. Mid-February in Shropshire? It was bloody cold. But inspecting the ties and the line was ... well, it wasn't a dull, dreary exercise that Elizabeth feared it might have so easily been, it was ...
It was pleasant. Wilfred was a quiet boy — that is: a quiet boy of twenty-five years of age — but he had gained some experience in the world, having traveled and lived abroad, and perspective on life, and he was kind and gentlemanly, and she found him engaging, after his initial reticence, incredibly smart, talented, even, but not at all smug. Rather, he had his observations, his thoughts — his pensées, as it were — but he didn't marvel at his own intelligence, rather, he shared something, giving it away, and letting it go, letting it be.
He was a quiet lad, but the quiet gave her room to be her, and instead of trying to impress her, the poor boy with the rich girl, he simply marveled at her.
She, for his part, he found her to be ... well, obviously, incredibly beautiful: a true English girl, blooming fully into becoming her own woman, but she wasn't a proper British snob at all, she was ... nice, sweet, too damn smart and insightful that no girl had a right to be, poised, self-possessed, ...
She was everything that every lad rode off into battle, lance in hand, to defend her honor and the Realm, and she was walking along the railway tracks beside him.
He couldn't believe his good fortune, his luck, nor her generosity. He wondered, briefly, if their roles were reversed, would he even give a poor girl knocking at the door of his wealthy estate the time of day? Or would he dismiss her with a few coppers and 'get ye to your back alleys and sell your flowers there for your sup, flower girl!'
He prayed that he wouldn't be everything he feared he might very well be, calloused by wealth and privilege, and admired that she was nothing of the sort.
But walking ... he, as a boy accustomed to this activity, it was nothing for him to walk the line, scanning the tracks for debris and obstructions, kicking them out of the way, but for her ...
Well, walking was very invigorating, to be sure, but also an activity that she didn't take up with all that much regularity or of such great duration. They had been out for well nigh an hour now, perhaps a bit less, perhaps a bit more, it wasn't in her nature to complain, nor to notice, but this had been enough of a walk.
She suggested, as they were approaching the station, that they take a ride on the train.
On the train?
Well, to Wilfred riding on the train was a luxury his family had never entertained. They had done well, when their father was living, but were impoverished since his death with no income other than his own at first, and then, as his brothers came of workable age, theirs, too. But he, a teacher? and they, labourers paid a pittance? Butter for bread was a luxury. Coals for heat, and not just cooking, were a luxury. A ride on the train?
Not even a thinkable extravagance.
But she had suggested, and she was out by his invitation. Of course he could not hesitate nor balk at the idea.
He paid for their tickets, a trip to the next station at Shrewsbury (and back, of course), although they both knew that she could have paid for both of them out of her spending money that she carried in her little purse, and not out of the money he scrimped and saved this month for food for the family.
But he was an Officer and a gentleman (although not landed gentry, of course), so of course he paid, and she was was a proper British young woman, a Lady (though not elevated at Court, of course), so of course she graciously allowed him to pay, and they both ignored the pain that showed in his arm has he handed over the coppers.
They rode in the compartment, and it was stuffy, but it was a relief for her to be out of the brisk, sharp, cold air that had a dampness to it that chilled one to the bone, and she looked out the window as the miles quickly passed in the train that had oh-so-slowly passed on foot.
Wilfred looked out the window, too, and tried not to be distracted by Elizabeth's rosy-cheeked reflection on the glass.
The ride there, to Shrewsbury, and back again, was over before it started, it seemed to them, and they were left on the Shropshire platform, standing awkwardly, not quite looking at each other.
"Well, ..." she said.
"Might I introduce you to my family?" Wilfred asked quickly and timidly, not quite looking at her.
She said, 'yes,' so they walked back to the lodgings at Birkenhead.
Wilfred tapped lightly on the green door of the first floor (that is, the floor above the ground floor) at the lodgings, saying softly, "Mother, it's me, I'm home."
The door flew open and a woman's face, wide with surprise and delight filled the frame.
The delight turned to shock when she saw that Wilfred was not alone.
"Oh, hullo!" Mrs. Harriet Owen said.
"Mother, may I present Miss Elizabeth Hale?"
Wilfred's voice was circumspect and reserved, but it hid nothing of the pride that he was presenting a young woman in the highest regards to his mother.
Mrs. Owen quickly wiped her hands on her apron. Her eyes missed nothing as they traveled between her boy in uniform and the young lady he was presenting.
"Do come in," she said politely.
Wilfred and Elizabeth entered the apartment, and inside was little Mary in a plain brown frock knitting and darning. She stopped her work when she saw her oldest brother and, shockingly, the rich young lady that she would ordinarily be taking the next order from, and not at all have expected to be receiving into her home.
Mrs. Owen introduced Mary to Miss Hale, and Mary stood, curtsied and blushed and offered a "Wil, you look ... well," to her brother. Then quickly added, "I mean, the regimentals, ..." waving at his uniform, then blushing harder, "... and all that."
She felt trapped and wanted to run and hide somewhere, but where would she do this in this one-bedroom apartment? and being a proper young girl herself, she knew how to behave, and that she had to, in front of company, no matter how august.
Elizabeth smiled at Mary and asked Mrs. Owen after her health. Mrs. Owen responded she was well, very well, indeed, now that her eldest son was home, and was apologetic that she couldn't introduce her two younger sons to her, as they were currently working in the fields. She was preparing supper for the family for when they returned, but that wouldn't be ready in a while, but would Miss Elizabeth like a spot of tea, perhaps, as it was tea time now.
Of course Elizabeth had to accept, as it would be rude otherwise, but she actually did decline, saying she had been out longer than expected, and she didn't wish to worry her family.
The Owen family's faces fell, but Mrs. Owen quickly replied that of course she understood, being a mother herself.
Elizabeth turned to go, smiling politely at Mrs. Owen and Mary.
Wilfred said to Elizabeth, "Oh, before you go, ..." He ran to the shared bedroom and got out the bottle of bubbly he had packed in his luggage from Bordeaux.
"I want you to have this," he said to her when he returned.
She looked at the bottle and smiled at him. "I'm sorry, I can't accept," she said.
"Oh," he said, looking away, trying not to look crushed in front of his family and her.
Elizabeth looked at Wilfred. "It's awfully kind of you, I'm sure," she said apologetically, "but, I'm engaged."
Surprise registered on Wilfred's face. "Oh," he said, shocked. Then: "Oh." Not being able to think of anything else.
"Please," she said, "why don't you have this with your family before you go?"
Mrs. Owen rescued the embarrassing situation by taking the bottle from Elizabeth's hands, accepting the bottle back as a gift from her to them and said that would be quite nice.
"Well, ..." Elizabeth said and turned to go.
"May I escort you back to your house?" Wilfred offered, and wondered if it were a mistake for him to call where she lived merely a 'house.'
Elizabeth smiled at him and said that would be very kind of him, and taking his offered arm left the Owen's residence, her subtle perfume lingering in the air.
After the door closed, little Mary sighed. "She's so ... pretty!"
Mrs. Owen smiled at her daughter and after a shrugged and quiet, 'well,' got back to her pots, and Mary to her sewing.
The walk back to the Hale estate was a quiet one for Wilfred and Elizabeth. Wilfred saw her to her door, and then thanked her for the walk.
Elizabeth smiled at him.
Wilfred inquired after her fiancé, would he be calling on her today, and did Wilfred accidently interrupt their visit? Elizabeth then told him that he had proposed just before he went off to the front and had been away for several months. Wilfred nodded, surprised, and asked after the man's name and regiment, seeing if he could look him up and let her know how he fared.
Elizabeth thanked him for that, concern plain on her face, as her fiancé hadn't written in a while, and that was disquieting.
"Well, ..." it was now Wilfred's turn to take his leave.
Elizabeth stood by the door, not knowing quite what to say to this young man going off to War, so she offered a "Bon chance," and stood by the door as he nodded, saluted, smiled, then turned toward home, and left.
Elizabeth stood by the door until he turned the corner, walking, heading toward the tracks and cheapside.
I can't sleep.
We've arrived at the front. We're all nervous, but excited, going into battle soon, I imagine. I wonder what it's like, to do one's duty, to be brave, to be a hero, even, defending your mates, for glory, and all that. The men who've been at the front for months now walk among us like gods, both remote and terrifying. I wonder what it'll be like when I go into battle. I hope I can be courageous.
p.s. I wonder if there's a Jerry, just like me, hoping the same thing? Funny, isn't it? But I shouldn't write this, I guess.
Tomorrow morning we're going to storm [Joncourt] [redacted] (we're in [France], [redacted] Mother). The war has been hard on us, but it's been my honor to serve with my troops. The ones still left, that is. I'm lucky I've made it this far. I guess. My love to Harry, Colin, and little Mary. I'll write when ... well, after.
Armistice, 4th November, 1918.
There was a knock at the green door of the first floor landing at Birkenhead.
Mrs. Owen ran to the door. "Wilfred!" she cried and nearly pulled the wooden door off its hinge.
But then all her breath left her in an "Oh!"
Two men, in the browns of the Royal Army, stood at the entranceway, looking very grave.
"Mrs. Owen, I'm Captain Browne, and this is Lieutenant Fletcher, may we come in?"
Captain Browne had crutches, as he was missing a leg, and his face was laced with shrapnel scars, but it was Lieutenant Fletcher, a young man ... boy ... whole and complete, who looked shaky and pale, as if ready to faint.
Mrs. Owen regarded both men, and knew.
"Of course," she said quietly, equally grave now.
The boys were home today. It was a National Holiday, filled with celebration and cheer, as the War was now officially over. Mary was home, too.
Mary said fearfully, "Mother, who are these men? Why are they here?"
"Harry," Mrs. Owen said very sternly, "you go on out to the parade and take Colin and Mary with you."
When Harry, staring at the soldiers himself didn't respond right away, Mrs. Owen barked, "You hear me?"
The children all nearly adults now — old enough for the boys to serve, but Thank God this terrible War was over before that could happen — left, Mary looking back at her mother, confused and angry.
Mrs. Owen would have to deal with that later.
"Sorry," she said to the officers and then: "I'll put the kettle on, would you like a spot of tea?"
Anything to delay the inevitable. Anything.
Lieutenant Fletcher made motions to speak, but Captain Browne cut in. "No, thank you, ma'am, we're here on business."
"Well, then, ..." Mrs. Owen's face was turning more and more ashen, "do sit down."
"Mrs. Owen," Captain Browne said, standing ramrod-straight, not moving to accept her politeness. "I regret to inform you that your son, ..."
"No," Mrs. Owen whispered.
Captain Browne continued relentlessly, reading from a piece of paper in his hand, "... 2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly."
And he said those terrible, meaningless words, saying where he was killed, how he died bravely in the line of duty, ...
But he didn't say why her son, the shy, quiet boy she knew and loved all her life, smaller and thinner than the carbine he was issued, would never be coming home to her, not ever again.
Captain Browne finished speaking and offered his regrets on behalf of the Royal Army and the United Kingdom.
Mrs. Owen thanked him, feeling detached, and apologized for their trouble.
Lieutenant Fletcher stepped forward, tears falling freely from his eyes as he gave Mrs. Owen a bundle of Wilfred's personal effects.
That was all that was left of her Wil, a little bundle of papers in Mrs. Owen's arms.
"Please, ..." Lieutenant Fletcher said.
"Rick..." Captain Browne warned.
Lieutenant Fletcher ignored his superior. "Please read your son's poem, ..."
"Eh?" Mrs. Owen asked. Her son wrote poetry?
"... It's so goddamn bloody true," Lieutenant Fletcher sobbed, now inconsolable.
Captain Browne limped forward, bumping Lieutenant Fletcher as he cried.
"Come on, now, Rick, come on, man!" Captain Browne scolded gently but firmly.
"Ma'am," he said, turning again to Mrs. Owen, "I'm so sorry for your loss."
Mrs. Owen made understanding motions.
The soldiers left.
Mrs. Owen sat at the kitchen table and stared at the package of letters.
There was a quiet knock at the door.
"Come on in, kids," Mrs. Owen said, sighing. How was she going to be able to tell them this?
"Mrs. Owen ...?" at the door was a quiet woman's voice.
Mrs. Owen sighed again and stood, her loss making her very bones ache with sadness.
She opened the door to see Miss Elizabeth Hale from four years ago, but now no longer a girl, but a woman, ...
... dressed in all black.
"I..." Elizabeth said, "... I saw the officers and I prayed that ..."
Mrs. Owen regarded Miss Hale.
"Do come in for some tea?" she asked.
The kettle was whistling.
"Yes," said Elizabeth.
They sat at the table, but neither of them touched their steaming cups.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," said Elizabeth.
Mrs. Owen said nothing.
Elizabeth looked down at her tea. "I knew him for ... a hour? But he was a good boy ... a good man."
Mrs. Owen was surprised how the whisper was torn from her chest. It didn't seem proper.
Elizabeth looked up and smiled wanly at Mrs. Owen, then Mrs. Owen was surprised to see Elizabeth had tears falling from her eyes.
"They came by my house first ..." Elizabeth said.
Then: "Geoffrey ... he, ... he's gone, too."
Mrs. Owen stared at the young woman. "Your fiancé?"
Elizabeth nodded, then shut her eyes, more tears falling.
Then: "Well, ..."
She stood to leave, passing Mrs. Owen, but, brushing by her, couldn't seem to stand any more, and fell into Mrs. Owen's arms, weeping uncontrollably.
Mrs. Owen held Elizabeth, and then she felt it, something tearing inside of her, something tearing away, and dying.
My baby, she thought. My wee baby boy.
And she felt tears falling from her eyes, which was a very improper and impolite thing for her to do, showing her emotions like this to a girl who had just lost her future, her to-be-husband consumed by the War.
"It's so goddamn unfair," Elizabeth whispered as she cried, "why do they have to be taken from us, and we have to go on? Why? Why?"
Mrs. Owen didn't know what to say, so she didn't, and she held Elizabeth as she cried.
Elizabeth's sobs eventually stopped, and she withdrew, embarrassed at the display.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," she whispered as she turned to go.
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Owen whispered to Elizabeth's back.
The door closed, and Mrs. Owen was left alone again in her tiny apartment with her son's effects.
She sat. She reached with trembling hands, scanning the papers and found this.
"DULCE ET DECORUM EST" by WILFRED OWEN
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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,
Obscene as cancer, 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.
She read it once through, quickly. Then again, quickly.
She couldn't slow down to absorb it.
This is what her boy faced? And did he ever even hint at it? Did any of the boys? Ever?
No. It was: "We're off to war, for King and Country," and then "Huzzah! We've won!"
Her son. So brave. Facing this, so br-... no: so lost, her boy, so trying to be brave, but she knew her baby, and he had been brave, for never putting on her the agony of knowing this, so that she could go on and mind the children, and know her brave soldier boy was off to battle, defending what was right.
She put the paper back in among his other effects. Would Wilfred want this to be known? No. Probably not. He had gone off to War, a Patriot, thinking it was sweet and it was right to die for one's country. The old Lie.
And she knew what a man he was. A brave, courageous man, fighting, dying, an unknown soldier, dead in a ditch. And that was probably enough for him, that his horrors, fears, bravery and heroism die with him, so that 'Rule, Britannia' would issue forth from brave young boys, just like him, unsullied by the grim reality that he faced to his dying day.
It would be enough for him.
But this was her boy, and, it was so many of Britain's boys who died like this.
It wasn't enough for her, that he died as he lived: quietly, meaning nothing to nobody, just another one of our boys dying a pointless death.
That night, hushing the tears of her little Mary away, Mrs. Owen slept fitfully, the parcel of letters at the foot of her bed.
The next day. 84 Charing Cross Road. London.
"I'm sorry, Madame, we're book-sellers, not publishers. Please talk to a publisher if you wish to have your son's poetry published."
The man behind the counter was polite and correct.
But Mrs. Owen was having none of it. She didn't come all the way to London to be brushed aside.
"Like whom?" she asked, immovable.
"I'm sure any publisher would do, ma'am," he said. "Or you could serialize it in monthly journal or perhaps contact the Times. There are any number of ways you can have your works seen to print."
"Let's start with the first one then," she said levelly, steel in her eye.
"Ma'am, ..." his voice became strained.
"No," she said definitively, "you're a book-seller, you have contacts with publishers. This work is important. You read this. You'll see. Then you'll help me. This is for my son. No. This is for all our sons. We've lost so many. Don't let them go down into this goodnight quietly. Please."
The book seller looked at Mrs. Owen, then sighed, holding out his hand. "May I see it, then?" he asked in a resigned tone.
Mrs. Owen smiled with relief, and then handed over a single piece of paper.
- Happy St. Valentine's day, martyr for the Faith. I'm sorry: this is the story that came to me today.
- The statement Captain Browne reads is the citation included with the award of the Military Cross that Wilfred Owen (posthumously) received for bravery in battle.
- 84 Charing Cross Road is the subject of its own novel. Read it. Please.
- Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" is a great departure from the original Latin poem by Horace. A poem that is light in tone but in keeping the original call to arms is "The Call" by Jessie Pope, who wrote:
Who's for the trench—
Are you, my laddie?
Who'll follow French—
Will you, my laddie?
Who's fretting to begin,
Who's going out to win?
And who wants to save his skin—
Do you, my laddie?
Who's for the khaki suit—
Are you, my laddie?
Who longs to charge and shoot—
Do you, my laddie?
Who's keen on getting fit,
Who means to show his grit,
And who'd rather wait a bit—
Would you, my laddie?
Who'll earn the Empire's thanks—
Will you, my laddie?
Who'll swell the victor's ranks—
Will you, my laddie?
When that procession comes,
Banners and rolling drums—
Who'll stand and bite his thumbs—
Will you, my laddie?
Owen's "Dulce" was in a way a response to "The Call," but before casting stones or aspersions as many have done against Pope and her poetry, one must remember that both poets were patriots and fully believed every word they wrote. War, in Pope's time, was considered a brave and honorable thing and every act was ennobling for our boys defending our virtues. Owen took a commission, after all, for just the reasons extolled in the original "Dulce:" it is sweet and it is right to die for one's country.
- Disclaimer: Although some people and places are part of history, the events and personalities are entirely fictional. This author makes no claim of accuracy in their representation.