There is much to say about these poets, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen, both of whom fought in WW1. But today, on Remembrance Sunday, let me just offer a beautiful poem from each, and a brief story of their service.
Neither man came home.
Edward Thomas. 1878-1917.
Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles in July 1915, despite being a mature married man who could have avoided enlisting. Thomas was promoted to corporal, and in November 1916 was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant. He was killed in action soon after he arrived in France at Arras on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. His widow, Helen, was told that his was a ‘bloodless death’; that Thomas was killed by the blast wave of one of the last shells fired as he stood to light his pipe and that there was no mark on his body. We now know this was not the case because a a letter from his commanding officer Franklin Lushington written in 1936 (and discovered later in an American archive) states that the cause of Thomas’s death was being ‘shot clean through the chest’. Thomas is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Agny in France (Row C, Grave 43).
Here is a favourite poem of his. It is gentle, pastoral but profoundly moving.
As the Team’s Head Brass
BY EDWARD THOMAS
As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
And here is a second poem; this one by Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918, prefaced by a brief account of his war service.
In 1915, Owen enlisted in the Artists Rifles Officers’ Training Corps and in June 1916, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant (on probation) in the Manchester Regiment. During this first part of active service, he was blown up by a trench mortar and spent several days unconscious on an embankment lying alongside the remains of one of his fellow officers. Rescued, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was here that he met Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged his writing. Once discharged from Craiglockhart, judged fit for light regimental duties, eventually returning to active service in France in June 1918; then, at the end of August 1918, Owen returned to the front line. He was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, one week before the signing of the Armistice. Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery, in northern France.
Below is my favourite Owen poem; it’s beautiful and eliptical: it doesn’t have the visceral horror of ‘Dulce et decorum est’, but I find it the most haunting poem of all. There is, of course, no answer to its sorrow.
BY WILFRED OWEN
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?