Wilfred Owen on The First World War: Dulce et Decorum Est
Wilfred Owen depicts the horrors, which he witnessed himself as second lieutenant in the Manchester regiment, of the First World War in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The poem’s title is the beginning of Horace’s famous Latin tag “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which means “it is right and fitting to die for one’s country.” In other words, this tag expresses the notion that it is noble to die in battle if it is for the protection of your nation. The poem itself is told from the perspective of a persona who is witnessing the death of a fellow soldier on the front. It is natural to conclude from the meaning of the poem’s Latin title, and a basic summary of its content, that it is a celebration of the glory of dying in combat in the spirit of protecting one’s country. However, the poem is rich in evidence in support of the notion that there is in fact a great deal of ironic tension between the honour and righteousness implied by the title, and the actual senselessness and futility of the sacrifice that is portrayed in Owen’s poem.
The basic idea behind sacrifice is that it is offered in exchange for some kind of gain. In the case of war (in general), soldiers who die in combat may simply be counted up as casualty statistic, but the theory is that their lives were given in direct service to the cause of the war in question. Now, this notion of sacrifice is really taken to task in The First World War. It was the first modern war in the sense that it was fought primarily with machinery and artillery that had come right out of the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the nineteenth century. Just as many workers in the Industrial Revolution were alienated from the fruits of their labour through the advent of assembly line work, soldiers in the First World War were alienated from their hand in killing the enemy with the wide-spread use of bombs and other long-range weaponry. I will henceforth return to other forms of military technology, but for now, I am going to focus on the use of mustard gas as a weapon. Gas warfare was also a technological novelty of the First World War, and was it ever horrific. Given ideal wind conditions, hundreds could be massacred at once. It is such brutal and alienating technology that strips the honour and glory off of individual sacrifice. It is by gas that the persona witnesses a soldier die in agony:
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. (Owen 9-14).
The dying soldier can do little more than cry out and stumble about; hardly a valiant warrior locked in chivalrous combat. His foe could not be less tangible; it’s a cloud of smoke! Consider how the metaphor of drowning is attached to the soldier’s death by gas. Drowning is most often associated with accidental death, and as a means of murder, it is technically the water that does the actual killing. You could not be more alienated from your killer in this instance. Furthermore, it is curious that the persona refers to the gas masks as “helmets.” The age of the word helmet, as opposed to the modern (and more accurate) term gas mask, suggests a reference to combat from an era passed. I am referring to knights of medieval chivalry who would often engage in hand-to-hand combat for the sake of honour. David Williams makes a keen observation about the Latin tag as archaic and irrelevant, “in the modern world, what do dead languages produce except more death? The blunt “truth” of native speech insists on being heard instead” (Williams 106). The English content of the poem has more validity because it is alive and contemporary, as opposed to the Latin tag which no longer fits in the context of modern warfare as it did with medieval chivalry. In the First World War, the value of individual sacrifice is greatly reduced by virtue of the distance that the technology involved sets up between opposing soldiers. For example, two or three men can launch a shell onto the enemy front and kill twenty or thirty; there is no direct relationship between killer and killed.
The notion that enemies are alienated from one another by the technology and method of warfare that was typical of The First World War is also apparent in how the poem’s speaker never directly mentions or encounters the enemy. Aside from the sudden appearance of gas, the only other acknowledgement of the enemy comes at the end of the first stanza:
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. (Owen 5-8).
The only indications of a foe are the shells that explode in the wake of the marching soldiers; there are no actual people present, chasing them with guns or swords. Furthermore, consider how much of a daze the soldiers are in; they are so tired that they can not even hear the shells that are dropping behind them. This is hardly combat at all, they are merely coping with an extremely hostile environment. If they are just trudging through mud, trying to dodge enemy bombardment, then what purpose could their deaths possibly serve? Their deaths only have symbolic value through the typical romanticised image of the strong brave soldier fighting for his country in the war, but in reality, the intensity and ruthless demands that are placed on them while serving on the front renders them little more than pathetic old men who just want to find somewhere peaceful to rest:
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 toward our distant rest began to trudge. (Owen 1-4).
There is no fight in them; there is nothing they can do. The technology of bomb shells and other long range artillery has taken away the chivalric spirit and power of the individual human body to the point of rendering it aged and decrepit; obsolete. Essentially, there was no access for many soldiers in the war, such as those in Owen’s poem, to the honour and glory that they were assured would be denied them if they failed to enlist.
A major means of compelling men to enlist was the patriotic pressure to protect the nation, especially in Britain, which did not implement conscription until 1916 (Heyman 20). The basic premise of this pressure is very well illustrated by taglines such as: “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” (Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker 99). But even though the dying solder in Owen’s poem made the noble gesture of enlisting in the war, what exactly did he do? I have already made it clear that he personally made no quantifiable gain in the war effort; he was killed by a sudden gas attack. Nonetheless, men were still faced with extreme pressure to risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of national security:
Apparently able-bodied young men in mufti often found themselves accosted in the street to answer questions about their failure to join up. Young women offered a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, to those who appeared reluctant to face the Germans. Those same young men were likely to find themselves dismissed from their jobs with an admonition from their employers that the country’s military needed their services. (Heyman 19)
This is the kind of mentality that Owen is addressing with “the old lie;” the way that men were persuaded by promising them honour and glory in the war that they would otherwise lack, and in effect, suffer some kind of shame:
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. (Owen 21-28).
The persuasive essence of Owen’s poem is the speculation that is demanded on the part of the reader regarding the impersonal cruelty that often marked deaths on the front. Essentially, he is trying to convey the notion that there is no honour in sacrificing yourself in the war because it is essentially extermination whereby the casualties had no means of directly fighting against their enemies because of the long-range technology that was utilized.
Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” challenges its readers to reconsider values of honour and sacrifice by portraying the First World War as a ruthless bloodbath that alienated casualties from their killers with long-range and sweeping weaponry such as gas and shells. Serving in this kind of warfare reduced soldiers to weak old men who did not have the individual agency necessary to make their sacrifice count in the long run.
Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane and Annette Becker. 14-18: Understanding the Great War. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. Print.
Heyman, Neil M. Daily Life During World War I. Westport:Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry. Ed. Keith Tuma. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 203. Print.
Williams, David. Media, Memory, and the First World War. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2009. Print.