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Wilfred Owen

Anthem for
Doomed Youth

Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 20 January 2014
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Owen is a renowned anti-war poet. All his poems are set in the trenches of the Great War (1st World War) and each aims to show through the use of shock images how grotesque and inhuman warfare really is.

Owen himself fought in the trenches but, ironically, was killed just one week before the end of the war in 1918.


Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 in Shropshire to a family of committed Christians. He was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and Shrewsbury Technical College.

He wanted to become a teacher but his father could not afford the university fees. Instead, therefore, he journeyed to France in 1913 where he worked as a tutor. He also wrote occasional poetry, none of which is particularly known.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Owen maintained a vague interest in events through cuttings from newspapers sent by his mother with whom he had a close relationship. Eventually, however, the pressure of propaganda reached him and, in October 1915, he returned to England and enlisted. He was then 22 years of age.

The poet spent a year in training. Letters to his mother reveal that he enjoyed the prestige of wearing the military uniform. His training finished at the end of 1916 whereupon he joined the 2nd Manchesters in France where he took command of No. 3 Platoon.

His enthusiasm initially abounded but soon he was sent to the frontline and witnessed firsthand the awfulness of warfare -- living in trenches which were forever knee-deep in mud and water, the rotting corpses of soldiers, the dreadful war injuries.

"I have suffered seventh hell," he wrote to his mother. "I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it . . . to where the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, three, four, and five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water . . . "

Initially Owen's character and temperament did not suit his being a soldier. He was a scholar and a poet -- introverted and sensitive. Moreover, he was a committed Christian whose ideals were opposed to warfare in any form. It was during this period that he appears to have penned most of his anti-war poems.

The war forced him to face a conflict between his Christian beliefs and his role as a soldier. "I am more and more a Christian," he wrote to his mother in May 1917. "Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed: but do not kill."

Late in 1917 Owen received a serious injury and was sent home, suffering from shell-shock. While recuperating in the military hospital, he fell under the influence of the anti-war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who aided him in polishing his war poetry.

Yet Owen appears to have had a distinct dislike for pacifists and did not want to be identified with them. Indeed, he felt that his poetry could have a far deeper impact if emanating from a soldier in the trenches.

For that reason, therefore, he re-enlisted for the army and, in October 1918, he rejoined his company in France. This time, however, he appears to have identified himself with the soldiers and took tremendous risks in battle.

During one encounter, he captured a German machine gun and used it to decimate a host of enemy soldiers, for which deed he won the Victoria Cross. Although he denied it in letters to his mother, he appears now to have become a killing machine.

In early November, just one week before the armistice which ended the war, he supervised the construction of a bridge to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal. Wave after wave of his own men were massacred in the attempt. Wilfred Owen too fell in a flurry of machine gun bullets.

He was buried in a small British cemetery in northern France. He was then just 25 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons."
  • What do the "doomed youth" have in common with cattle? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Identify and name THREE language devices used in the lines: "Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle | Can patter out their hasty orisons." (6)

[Need help?]

  • In what way could the "rifles rapid rattle" be compared to the soldiers "hasty orisons"? (4)

[Need help?]

"No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires."
  • What is meant by "these mockeries"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet say that there will be no more "mockeries" for the soldiers? (2)

[Need help?]

"What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall."
  • The poet says that no candles will be lit at the funerals of these soldiers. Instead, he says, "in their eyes | Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes". What does he mean by this? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is meant by the words, "The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall"? (2)

[Need help?]

In this sonnet, the poet provides six images which contrast the death of soldiers in war with the burial of civilians in a traditional funeral.
  • Using a grid with one column marked, "Traditional Church Funeral", and a second marked, "Wartime Battlefield Funeral", show clearly what are the main points that he compares? (6)

[Need help?]

"Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds."
  • Name TWO language devices used in these two lines. Be able to explain your answer. (4)

[Need help?]

Try another worksheet?

See also:
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