Tag Archives: Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen: Spring Offensive & PTSD

You won’t find a more haunting depiction of battle induced PTSD than the last two stanzas of Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive. You’ll be curious no doubt to double back on the setup: troops being marched to the frontline, the idyllic lull before battle, the unceremonious charge, and the moment a stealthy sprint turns to mayhem. The next stanza speculates about the fate of those who fall in battle: to bullets, to explosive shells, and to shrapnel. The last stanza is about the “too swift” survivors who “out-fiend” death to come through, and don’t want to, or can’t, talk about it.

Spring Offensive (April, 1917)

Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees,
Carelessly slept.
                          But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.

Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like the injected drug for their bones’ pains,
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.

Hour after hour they ponder the warm field—
And the far valley behind, where the buttercup
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.

Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word
At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle. No alarms
Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste—
Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced
The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.
O larger shone that smile against the sun,—
Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; earth set sudden cups
In thousands for their blood; and the green slope
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.

Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.

But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

Wilfred Owen: Dulce et decorum est (Pro patria mori – The Old Lie)


The Roman poet Horace wrote “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country” as Rome shifted from republic to empire. By 1917 British infantryman Wilfred Owen had reduced Horace’s sentiment to “The old Lie.” Owen was killed in the Great War. His poem wasn’t published until 1920 after the war. Even exposed, the old lie went on to adorn many monuments, including, also in 1920, the rising U.S. empire’s Arlington National Cemetery.

Dulce et Decorum Est (August, 1917)

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.

Then somewhere near in front: Whew… fup… fop… fup…
Gas-shells or duds? We loosened masks, in case —
And listened … Nothing… Far rumouring of Krupp…
Then stinging, poison hit us in the face.

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.