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Episodes from the Archive: August 1914, Where was Wilfred Owen? by Jane Potter

Published: September 10, 2014

Wilfred Owen from Poems (1920)Wilfred Owen was in France 1914, though not near the battlefields that his war poems would memorialise. He had been teaching English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux since the autumn of 1913 and took up the post of tutor to Madame Léger and her daughter Nénette in July 1914. The Legers owned the Villa Lorenzo, near Bagnères-de-Bigorre in the La Gailleste valley at the foot of the Pyrenees, an idyllic location that impressed Owen from the time he stepped off the train on the 31st of July. “What luck!”, he wrote to his closest confidante, his mother Susan. His hosts were also enchanting. M Léger was a former engineer who had given up the profession for a career in the arts. Nénette was “perfectly a child” with “more than her fair share of intellect”. and she made her tutor “immensely happy”, declaring “Monsieur Owen est trés-joli garçon, n’est-ce-pas?” (Owen 1998, 116) Madame, he tells Susan, is “elegant rather than belle [...] with shapely features luxuriant coiffure, but is much too thin to be pretty” (Owen 1998, 116). But he has to reassure his mother that although Madame “has a considerable liking for me, both in a physical and intellectual sense”, he does not reciprocate “the former liking” (Owen 1998, 116).

After 4 August, war began to rage in Europe. By the time Owen was fully ensconced at Villa Lorenzo, Bagnères was overcome by the news: “Women were weeping all about; work was suspended. Nearly all the men have already departed.” He had “to declare” himself to the authorities and “get a permit to remain” (Owen 1998, 109). Yet he continued “to be immensely happy and famously well” (Owen 1998, 110), immersing himself in French literature and making the acquaintance of the poet Laurent Tailhade, who guided him to the work of Paul Verlaine, Gustav Flaubert and others. As the war carried on around him, Owen found that it “affects me less than it ought”, and argued that he could “ do no service to anybody by agitating for news or making dole over the slaughter.” He felt his “own life all the more precious and more dear in the presence of this deflowering of Europe” and commented that “the guns will effect a little useful weeding” (Owen 1998, 119). There is no poet of pity here. While he was not entirely oblivious to press rhetoric about shirking young Englishmen, he told his mother that the real reason he would go to fight — “what would hold me together on the battlefield” — was “the sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote!” (Owen 1998, 130) It was only after his horrendous experiences on the Western Front in 1917 and his recovery from shellshock, that the Owen with whom we, in the early 21st century, are most familiar would emerge: “I came out here to help these boys — directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly by watching their suffering that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first.” (Owen 1998, 351)

Thus Owen’s letters of this early period of the war, and through most of 1915, reveal him weighing many options (including joining the French or the Italian army), as he continued to tutor in Bordeaux and attend courses at the University. It had been mooted that he accompany Madame Léger on a business trip to Canada, but instead, in December, he took up the post of tutor to two English boys, Johnny and Bobbie de la Touche at Mérignac. The boys were meant to return to their public school, Downside near Bath, but the threat of submarines in the Channel continually delayed their leaving until September 1915. After accompanying them back to England, Owen, in mid-October, enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles at its headquarters in London: “I don’t want the bore of training, I don’t want to wear khaki; nor yet save my honour before inquisitive grand-children fifty years hence. But I now do most intensely want to fight” (Owen 1998, 153).

Owen, Wilfred. 1998. Selected Letters. Edited by John Bell. Oxford: OUP.


About Dr. Jane Potter

Dr. Jane Potter is Senior Lecturer in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University. Her monograph Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women's Literary Responses to the Great War 1914-1918 (OUP 2005; paperback 2007) was joint winner of the 2006 Women’s History Network Book Prize and she has published widely on many aspects of war literature, book history, and women's writing. Her current research is a collaborative project with Dr Carol Acton (St. Jerome's, University of Waterloo, Canada) entitled Working in a World of Hurt: Trauma and Resilience in the Narratives of Medical Personnel in Warzones (forthcoming, Manchester University Press, 2015). A Trustee of the Wilfred Owen Literary Estate, she is the author of Wilfred Owen: An Illustrated Life (Bodleian Library Publishing, 2014) and is currently working on a new edition of Owen's Selected Letters for Oxford University Press, due to be published in 2015.  



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