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Dominic Hibberd: Wilfred Owen

This is a biography of Wilfred Owen, published in 2002. Dominic Hibberd, who has published previous books on Owen and also edited collections of his poems, has produced a comprehensive and up-to-date account of Wilfred Owen and his family, from the background of the Owens and the Salters (his mother's family) before Wilfred's birth, and continuing right through to his death in November 1918.

Previous biographies had been somewhat limited by Harold Owen, Wilfred's brother, who wrote his own account (Journey from Obscurity, see above), and who avoided any mention of Wilfred's homosexuality. In fact he managed to suggest that Wilfred was heterosexual, or at least inclined to be. Earlier biographies did not manage to wholly escape this influence, which was furthered by the fact that Harold "censored" his brothers surviving letters, removing various references he did not feel would add to the view he wanted to present to the world of Wilfred.

Roughly half the book deals with Wilfred's experiences with the Army during the First World War, and covers his experiences including his time on the Somme front in early 1917, his time at Craiglockhart following shell-shock, and his return to France in 1918. He was then involved in the battles to cross the Hindenburg line, and the continuing advances made leading up to the end of the War. For bravery in action (including "inflicting losses on the enemy") at Joncourt ridge, he was recommended for the Military Cross. This was awarded (posthumously), and interestingly the citation quoted elsewhere had been amended (presumably by Harold) to read "took a number of prisoners" - presumably to maintain the pacifist poet view that Harold wanted to foster.

In early November 1918, the 32nd Division (with which Owen was serving in the 2nd Manchesters) attempted to cross the Sambre-Oise canal, the Manchester's objectives being just north of the village of Ors. On the 4th of November, Wilfred Owen was killed in this attempt, either on the bank or possibly on a raft whilst trying to cross. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on the day of the Armistice, a week later.

Obviously a complex, and sometimes troubled person, Owen was nevertheless a brave soldier, and obviously his poems are still for many (as for myself) the introduction to an interest in the First World War.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson: Siegfried Sassoon

This biography, first published in 1998, covers the period of Sassoon's life from his birth in 1886 until the end of the Great War. A subsequent volume (subtitled The Journey from the Trenches) covers the remainder of his life.

Sassoon was born into a comfortably well-off family, whose roots went back to the extremly wealthy Sassoons of the Persian Gulf and the farming Thornycrofts of Cheshire. He lived in Kent, and although his father died when he was young, seems to have had a happy childhood with his two brothers. Always interested in writing and poetry, Moorcroft decribes his growing up and being tutored at home before going to Marlborough and, briefly Cambridge University, although he did not complete his studies there.

He then became, essentially, the gentlemen of leisure described in his wonerfully evocative Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man, playing cricket, hunting and also writing lyrical poems. He did move to London for a short while to live as a poet, but most of his time was spent in Kent, or visiting various hunting friends until war broke out just before his 28th birthday. The experience of his war years (in which he spent only a short period actually at the front) is described in detail, including his famous meetings with Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen. He became increasingly dissatisfied with the way the war was being, as he saw it, prolonged, and his public protest at this led to him being treated for 'shell-shock' at Craiglockhart, where he met Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, another important character in these years.

This biography is very readable, and also filled with details and copious footnotes to provide all the background information required. Many of the real people behind the characters described in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston's Progress are explained in these notes. As well as dealing with Sassoon's life and experiences, Jean Moorcroft Wilson also examines how his poetry evolved, from the lyrical pre-war and early war verses to the satirical and sometimes bitter poems that are probably best known to many of us.

Tonie & Valmai Holt: My Boy Jack?

Like many other visitors to the Western Front I am very familiar with Major & Mrs. Holt's Battlefield Guide to the Somme and the other books in this series (see the Battlefields Guides review page). First published in 1998, this book is a thoughtful, and thought-provoking volume looking at the death of John Kipling, only son of Rudyard and Carrie Kipling, who was reported 'missing' during the Battle of Loos in September 1915.

However, it is much more than this. It is a biography of Rudyard Kipling himself, as well as covering the short life of his son John. Tragically, the Kipling's also lost their first daughter who died of pneumonia at the age of six. John became the focus of their attentions, and despite his poor eyesight he obtained a commission in the Irish Guards with the help of his influential father. When after only a short time in France John was reported missing, last seen on the 27th of September 1915, his parents were obviously distraught. In this they were of course not alone - countless other families suffered the loss of their loved ones. Many of these were initially listed as 'missing' and this story of one family brings home the depths of despair and the grasping at faint straws of hope that all in this situation must have gone through.

'Missing' could have meant their son was a prisoner, or perhaps in a hospital somewhere but not yet identified. As time passed, these hopes faded, but the Kiplings still hoped that at least they would at some point have a grave to visit and mourn over. It is well known that Kipling became involved with the Imperial War Graves Commission, and his work there, as well as in writing the history of the Irish Guards in the Great War shows his love for his lost son.

It is, of course, well known now that a grave in St. Mary's ADS Cemetery near Loos was identified as that of John Kipling by the CWGC in 1992, and the headstone there now bears his name. However, it is also still also inscribed on the Loos Memorial to the Missing at Dud Corner (both these sites are covered on the Loos page). My Boy Jack? examines this identification, and the authors present compelling evidence that it is suspect at best, and very probably incorrect. Their position is updated in Appendices to the various editions, including in the most recent 2007 edition, where the position has been commented on by a number of others from the military and judicial fields.

Overall, this book is highly recommended. It can be read as a biography of John Kipling as well as Rudyard Kipling, but perhaps it's most powerful theme is the suffering of one family who lost their only son in the Great War - and how they never really ever got over it.

Harold Owen

Journey From Obscurity

Three volumes make up Wilfred Owen's brother Harold's autobiography, which obviously deals to a large extent with his experiences growing up with his brother. The volumes are long out of print, but you can find copies in second-hand or rare bookshops. As with Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man, for me the fascination of Harold Owen's autobiography is the picture that it paints of growing up before and during the First World War.

Unlike Sassoon, the Owen family were middle-class, and money was not something they had in abundance. Hence these books describe a harder life, not the true poverty or hardship that was experienced by the working classes, many of whom saw joining the army as a way to escape from the meanness of their lot - but there were privations and there were difficulties.

The picture Harold paints of Wilfred is very subjective, and certainly elements have been questioned by later biographers. However, for anyone interested in Owen or in the period, these three volumes are superb reading.