Crisis of Identity in World War One and the Poetry of Wilfred Owen

The need for recognition is intrinsic to the development of both personal and collective identity. An individual forms a sense of his or her identity, and becomes parts of identity groups, with people who’re similar in some way or the other. An identity is formed on factors like gender, nationality, race, religion, age, and so on, but need not be restricted to or completely dependent on these factors, and vary from person to person. The recognition of personal or group identities as unique leads to an authentication of a person or a group. Charles Taylor has argued that “democracy has ushered in a politics of equal recognition, which has taken various forms over the years” (27). Democracy is generally seen as encouraging and fostering the development of an individual’s identity and the due recognition of this identity by others. Alternatively, the recognition of personal or group identities can be seen as a necessity for the sustenance of the broad principles of democracy, such as equality, liberty, sovereignty and so on. But what happens when the very factors that form the basis of identity erode to no longer sustain the basis of identity formation, and the neat delineations of identity groups no longer serve as authenticating forces for an individual’s identity? When identity formulating factors like gender, nationality or religion are no longer solid foundations on which an identity can be built, but become contested spaces, a person can be said to be experiencing a crisis of identity.

The First World War posed a threat to the modern sense of identity like never before. World War One was catastrophic in more than one sense. The overpowering strength of machinery and technology of the world’s first industrialized war coupled with its grand geographic scale ensured destruction like never before. However the war was destabilizing not just for its monumental size, but also for the kinds of havoc it caused: physical injuries and deformities as never seen before, battles which were no longer about face-to-face combat, but about technological superiority and trench warfare, the European world divided into two armed camps and subsequent division of their colonies, deaths in such a large scale that by the end of the war the male to female ratio was significantly skewed, extreme psychological trauma initially diagnosed as “shell shock”, and a failure to express these changes in pre-existing frameworks, with the people who lived through it feeling that nothing exactly like the First World War had ever happened before. This war destabilized normative notions of gender, religion, sexuality, nationality and personal and collective identity like never before.

Democratic nations are usually never ideals of identity fostering and recognition providing. Miorities or dissenting views are ignored, discouraged, quelled or condemned, to cement a monolithic notion of a nation’s identity. At times when the security or identity of a nation is at stake, individual identities are under more threat than ever, as it becomes mandatory to maintain a unified front to combat whatever threat a nation is facing. State sponsored propaganda promulgated the accepted notion of the state and the accepted attitude of citizens toward their nation, and towards other nations. Such strict vigilance is necessary for mass recruitment of civilians to participate in wars, and also for support from citizens for state actions that would be criticized under normal circumstances. In Britain during World War One, media was strictly regulated to present Britain as a world leader, undertaking necessary ethical actions against a demonized enemy, and consequently, British soldiers were portrayed as fearless, sacrificing heroes on a mission to preserve and uphold all that Englishness represented. The real situation though, was very different. Wilfred Owen, a British war poet considered to be the greatest of the First World War poets, grapples with questions of an identity at crisis and misrecognition of this identity in his war poetry. In this paper, I will analyze how Owen attempted to express his crisis of identity, as well as to narrate the trauma that the war had inflicted on the collective identities of the soldiers engaged in it.

Owen’s poetry is so intensely personal on the one hand that almost all major critics refer to his Christian upbringing, his rumoured homosexuality, his admittance at Craiglockhart War Hospital after he was diagnosed with shell shock and his life-changing meeting with Siegfried Sassoon there. After enlisting for war, Owen found himself losing grip of the very factors that had shaped his identity so far. He also came to realize that the actual situation of the soldiers was very different from the one portrayed by the government and accepted by the English people. Instead of being inspired by patriotism and a sense of purpose derived from valour and comradeship, Owen came to be disgusted by what war actually was. His meeting with Siegfried Sassoon after being admitted at Craiglockhart War Hospital was instrumental in aiding him to express his new sensibility. Sassoon’s poetry and connections helped to formulate Owen’s new sensibility, and his ideas prompted Owen to adopt a realist attitude in his poetry, as opposed to the Romantic influence that had characterized them so far. By concentrating on some of his poems, I would like to explore how he worked through his own trauma, as well as attempted to authenticate the identity of fellow soldiers. Sassoon’s influence enabled Owen to translate the trauma he had undergone in the battlefield to expression; and his poetry from then not only documented the horrific experiences he faced, but also negotiated his internal struggles with the ethics of war and the need to mute his sensitivity and disillusionment for survival.

It is tempting to depict Wilfred Owen as a staunch pacifist, as a sensitive soul who was forever plunged in guilt by the acts he was forced to commit as a result of a cruel war. However, such a view only limits the reading of his poetry. His poetry is richer if Owen is seen as a person in conflict; this conflict triggered by the trauma of war, and negotiated in his war poems. After being discharged from Craiglockhart, Owen adopted an attitude of insensitivity, to deal with the ever-increasing number of casualties and pervading violence. In his letter to Sassoon, he explains, “I cannot say I suffered anything, having let my brain grow dull… I shall feel anger again as soon as I dare, but now I must not”. (qtd. in Poertry Foundation). Owen must be recognized as a person struggling to redefine his identity, under the weight of the wartime trauma inflicted on him.

Contemporary trauma theory has superseded Cathy Caruth’s understanding of the site of trauma as marked by silence. Richard McNally’s Remembering Trauma, is an essential study in this new reading of trauma. As Pederson explains, McNally argues that the narration of trauma enables its narrator to accelerate rehabilitation, and that “traumatic memories are not elusive or absent; they are potentially more detailed and more powerful than normal ones” (Pederson 339).  This new understanding of trauma is integral to a reading of Owen’s war poetry as grappling with his personal trauma. In “Dulce et Decorum Est”, the conflagration of visual and auditory detail, along with the surreal, dreamlike quality of time and experience is typical of a revisit to the site of trauma: the memory accentuated and the senses heightened, while at the same time the experience appearing distant and time as standing still. Owen’s poems plunge the reader into the middle of the experience itself, and in this poem, the reader experiences the shock that the combatants do when the exclamation of “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” (“Dulce” 24) suddenly interrupts the poem’s sluggish atmosphere. Owen shocks the readers to convey the horror and brutality of the situation. This technique keeps alive the shock of the experience of trauma, and a revisit to the site of trauma helps Owen to come in terms with it by forming his narrative of his experience.

Beyond an expression of personal identity at a moment of crisis, Owen also portrays the dispossessed identity of the soldiers, and the widespread misrecognition of their plight. Charles Taylor observes that “nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being” (Taylor 25). While Taylor is commenting on the negative result of a demeaning view that others can have on personal or group identity formation, I would like to suggest, in this particular instance, that the harms of misrecognition are the same even if society views a person or a group in heroic or ideal terms. During the First World War, propaganda in Britain was strictly regulated. Poetry, first written by civilians, and then by serving soldiers, depicted war as a noble sacrifice. These poems were extremely popular, and Paul Norgate expounds the essential rhetoric of these poems as

“If I should die, you will know that I have sacrificed my Youth in the fight for Liberty and Right. I recall the beauties of England and I know our struggle is part of God’s plan. Our spirit and our memory will be sweet comfort to our mothers, wives and sisters, and glorious inspiration to our brothers”

(Norgate 518)

That this sentiment wasn’t stated in its entirety or so explicitly is a testament to how popular and pervasive it was. That Owen was aware of these poems is obvious in his initial dedication of “Dulce et Decorum Est” to Jessie Pope, a civilian poet who wrote about war in terms of a game, in which victory meant fame and glory. Wilfred Owen often used stock images and ideas of typical soldier poetry, but employs them with his characteristic ironic tone. In “The Anthem for Doomed Youth”, the celebrated sacrifice of a soldier’s life is undercut by the sheer number of those dying “as cattle”, and the traditional rituals or burial and mourning replaced by “wailing shells and bugles” (“Anthem” 11). “Dulce et Decorum Est” through a series of horrific images inverses the Horatian motto, ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’. The choking environment and physical injuries that Owen describes in the poem were deliberately muted by mainstream commentary on the war. There is nothing heroic or redeeming in “an ecstasy of fumbling” (“Dulce” 24), where soldiers are fighting not an equal enemy, but something more unsubstantial and infinitely more dangerous. The reality of war is revealed to be not glorious combat, but an agonized waiting in “Exposure”, and more people are shown to be dying from the dreadful cold than from bullets, which only “streak the silence”. The sense of mission a soldier supposedly has is shattered when the poet explains the only things that the people waiting in the cold believe in: “we only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy” (“Exposure” 26). Linear time doesn’t seem to operate, and the soldiers are locked in such a haze that they aren’t even sure if they’re dying. The lines between life and death blur, as the soldiers find themselves slipping between the two, all the while when the oppressive refrain reinforces the fact that “but nothing happens” (“Exposure” 26). Death is no longer a sudden, shocking change; it isn’t very different from life itself. The blindness of mainstream media to the sheer number of deaths in the war is mocked in Owen’s characteristic ironical tone in “Smile, Smile, Smile”, where the Daily Mail types “casualties” in small and “Vast Booty from our Latest Haul” in large. The soldiers “smile at one another curiously” at the thought that “The greatest glory will be theirs who fought, / who kept this nation in integrity” (“Smile, Smile, Smile” 52). These poems speak out against the mainstream rhetoric surrounding war, trying to erase the misrecognition the life of a soldier is subject to. Owen’s poetry provides his comrades with a sense of authenticity about their situation through the written word, which was missing from the news and literature that they read regularly.

Religious symbolism was used to enhance the positive significance of a soldier’s every action. The identification of the soldier with the figure of Christ was a cliché in soldier poetry. Wilfred Owen uses religious symbolism not only to invert the tone of soldier poetry, but also to negotiate the religious conflicts that he himself faced. Owen’s religious upbringing and his helplessness in the incongruity of such ideas amidst war find expression in poems such as “At a Cavalry near the Ancre”. In this poem, Owen criticizes organized religion for its complicity in projecting an idealistic image of the soldiers at war. Both Christ and the soldier’s sacrifice is either ignored or misread by the Church and the people. Owen implies that in the political arena where “The scribes on all the people shove / And bawl allegiance to the state”, the countless deaths probably don’t matter. Man is shown as unable to recognize the implications of “greater love” in a world torn apart by war (“At a Cavalry” 16). The soldiers, ultimately, are shown to be dying for each other, and this is what makes them Christ like. Owen, in recreating sacrifice and suffering, attempts to authenticate soldiers’ lives in their reciprocal recognition of the validity of their experiences.

Through the war, Owen developed a new sensibility, and a new identity, but this can be described as a fractured identity at best. Trauma and shell shock (shell shock to be later identified as post traumatic stress disorder), as a result of a new age warfare characterized by senseless deaths of great numbers and conventional notions of battle and combat ceasing to operate,  dislodged common identity formulating factors. Owen, through his poetry, tries to re-form and re-negotiate his identity by repetition, by re-telling his experiences. His poems are also a witness to the suffering and countless deaths of soldiers at war, which were refused to be acknowledged by the government and media, and thus, by the general civilians at large. His witnessing was a means to provide the soldiers with a sense that their experiences were authentic, that their trauma was all too real, unlike the state sponsored literature and art on war. The sense of the divided self in Owen’s poetry later came to characterize Modernity in general. The echoes of the human psyche irrevocably altered by war can be seen in the works of later literature.


Works Cited

Norgate, Paul. “Wilfred Owen and the Soldier Poets”. The Review of English Studies. Vol. 40, No. 160 (Nov 1989), pp 516-530. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Accessed: 25 October 2015. Web.

Owen, Wilfred. Wilfred Owen: Poems. Classic Poetry Series., 2004. Accessed: 10 October 2015. Web.

Pederson, Joshua. “Speak, Trauma: Toward a Better Understanding of Literary Trauma Theory”. Narrative. Vol. 22, Number 3 (Oct 2014), pp 333-353. Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2014. Accessed: 28 October 2015.  Web.

Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition”. Gutmann, Amy ed. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.

“Wilfred Owen: Biography”. The Poetry Foundation. Accessed: 2 October 2015. Web.


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