New Recruits, c. 1917
By Wilfred Owen
Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.
“The Send-off” describes a group of new soldiers departing for the trenches of the Great War by train, ‘The Send-Off’ was not one of Wilfred Owen’s poems that I was familiar with until I came across it yesterday. Wilfred Owen is most often remembered as one of the more passionate and eloquent voices of the First World War poets. Most of the poems for which he is now famous were written in a period of intense creativity between 1917 and 1918. The poem I am most familiar with is "Dulce et Decorum Est," which he wrote at Craiglockhart hospital near Edinburgh where he had been sent to recover from neurasthenia, better known as shellshock. While at the hospital, he would meet the poet and novelist, Siegfried Sassoon, who had a major impact upon his life and work and played a crucial role in publishing Owen’s poetry following Owen’s untimely death in 1918, aged 25. Only five of Owen's poems were published in his lifetime. Owen wrote a number of his most famous poems at Craiglockhart.
“The Send-off” was written at Ripon, where there was a huge army camp. The poem describes a group of soldiers leaving for the Western Front by train. They had just come from a sending-off ceremony—cheering crowds, bells, drums, flowers given by strangers—and they were being packed into trains for an unknown destination. Note the effect of the early use of an oxymoron: the men are said to be “grimly gay.” They sang as they marched gayly from the upland camp to the siding shed, but the use of “grimly” suggests that they know enough about what lies ahead of them to feel somber and anxious.
The poem suggests that they may have been given flowers to celebrate the bravery of their commitment to the cause, but Owen emphatically compares the “wreath and spray” to flowers for the “dead.” Traditionally flowers have a double significance – colorful flowers for a celebration, white flowers for mourning. So, the women who stuck flowers on their breasts thought they were expressing support but were actually garlanding them for the slaughter of the Western Front. One of the things which make “The Send-Off” a masterful piece of poetry is the way in which Owen suggests the cracks already showing beneath the supposedly joyous and celebratory event of a group of soldiers being cheered on as they depart their homes and head for the Western Front.
“The Send-Off” correctly predicts that those soldiers who are lucky enough to return home alive will find their hometowns and villages to be very different (“half-known”) from the ones they left: there will be no crowds of girls to greet them and cheer them as there was to see them off, and no great celebration of their heroism. And many who returned would never be the same again, mentally scarred by shellshock, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the horrors witnessed. During and after the First World War, many people could not bear to watch a train moving away because this reminded them of a last meeting. His work is full of compassion and outrage and technically highly skillful. Perhaps more than any other poet of the First World War he was able to show the reality and horror of war.
Sadly, Owen was killed in action on November 4, 1918, during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells in Shrewsbury were ringing out in celebration. Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery, Ors, in northern France. The inscription on his gravestone, chosen by his mother Susan, is based on a quote from his poetry: "SHALL LIFE RENEW THESE BODIES? OF A TRUTH ALL DEATH WILL HE ANNUL" W.O.