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Wilfred's Last Campaign

September 12th 2018    Category: General

This article will continue to be updated with information on Wilfred's progress, during the last months of his life, spent in France in 1918. For the most recent bulletin, please see the slide at the top of our homepage.

  • 9th September, 1918: Wilfred journeys with fellow soldiers back to the front, after leaving home for the last time at the end of August, and writes home from his billets in Amiens: "There are no window panes, but the valuable hand-lace-curtains remain."
  • 16th September, 1918: Wilfred joins the rest of his battalion at La Neuville, where he is assigned to D Company and subsequently appointed as Bombing Officer.
  • 19th September, 1918: Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, has his full speech to the Senate reported in The Times, igniting annoyance in Wilfred, who writes: "All are worthy of victory, because they will know how to honour it." This, in turn, inspires Smile, Smile, Smile, which was written around this time:

Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned
Yesterday's Mail; the casualties (typed small)
And (large) Vast Booty from our Latest Haul.
Also, they read of Cheap Homes, not yet planned;
"For," said the paper, "when this war is done
The men's first instinct will be making homes.
Meanwhile their foremost need is aerodromes,
It being certain war has just begun.
Peace would do wrong to our undying dead,—
The sons we offered might regret they died
If we got nothing lasting in their stead.
We must be solidly indemnified.
Though all be worthy Victory which all bought.
We rulers sitting in this ancient spot
Would wrong our very selves if we forgot
The greatest glory will be theirs who fought,
Who kept this nation in integrity."
Nation?—The half-limbed readers did not chafe
But smiled at one another curiously
Like secret men who know their secret safe.
(This is the thing they know and never speak,
That England one by one had fled to France
Not many elsewhere now save under France).
Pictures of these broad smiles appear each week,
And people in whose voice real feeling rings
Say: How they smile! They're happy now, poor things.

  • 22nd September, 1918: Wilfred sends Sassoon a copy of Spring Offensive, a poem prompted by his experiences in Saint-Quentin the previous April:

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 buttercups
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; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
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?

  • 1st and 2nd October, 1918: Wilfred leads the 2nd Manchesters in an attack along the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line at Joncourt. Following the victory, he is recommended for the Military Cross, which was subsequently awarded posthumously.
  • 4th October, 1918: Wilfred writes home to his mother, following the attack at Joncourt: "Of whose blood lies yet crimson on my shoulder where his head was—and where so lately yours was—I must not now write."
  • 17th October, 1918: Wilfred and his company move east via Poeuilly, Vermand, and Vadancourt to Bellenglise, where they cross the Saint-Quentin-Cambrai Canal once more and sleep in the Germans' Hindenberg Tunnel at Lehaucourt. Over the following three days, they continue their march, following the retreating Germans, via Levergies, Sequehart, Fontaine-Uterte, and Fresnoy-le-Grand to Bohain en Vermandois.
  • 22nd October, 1918: Wilfred moves his company a few miles north, to the village of Busigny, where he spends another week training his men.
  • 29th October, 1918: Wilfred sets out on his final march to Saint-Souplet, before camping near Bazuel, just east of Le Cateau. The next morning, on 30th October, he continues to Le Pommereuil.
  • 31st October, 1918: Wilfred writes home to his mother from the cellar of the Forester's House at Ors: "Of this I am certain: you could not be surrounded by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here." This will be his final ever letter.
  • 4th November, 1918: Wilfred and his company set out from the Forester's House before dawn, to attempt a crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal at Ors. During this attempt, Wilfred is shot and killed, along with many of his fellow men. They lie together in Ors Communal Cemetery.
  • 5th November, 1918: Wilfred's promotion to full lieutenant is announced in The London Gazette, the day following his death.
  • 8th November, 1918: Wilfred is formally and posthumously awarded the Military Cross for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line".
  • 11th November, 1918: As the bells ring out for the Armistice, the Owen family receive the telegram informing them of Wilfred's death.
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