Wilfred Owen, a Christ Church ‘old boy’, is often described as the greatest of the war poets. His pioneering realism, linguistic innovation, and outstanding technical skills combine to give him a truly profound poetic voice. A war hero himself, he was killed just a week before Armistice Day. Tragically, his mother received the dreaded telegram on Armistice Day as church bells were ringing out in celebration. This gives Owen’s poem ‘The Send Off’, written just five months earlier, a bitter irony:
Shall they return to beating of great bells
In wild train loads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to village wells,
Up half-known roads
Owen was closely involved with Christ Church when his family was living in Birkenhead, including attending the Sunday School. His family moved away in 1906 when he was thirteen, but it’s clear that our church had a significant, formative effect on the young Owen as from 1911 to 1913 he went to work as a vicar’s assistant down in Berkshire. Owen was virtually unknown as a poet in his lifetime but his stature grew over the following decades, initially on a slow burn but igniting into full public recognition by the 1960s. His flame has since burnt ever more brightly.
As Jeremy Paxman has written, ‘It is Owen’s intense respect for the soldier that makes his poetry so powerful. Those who did not return have their meticulously maintained stone memorials on the fields of Flanders. But their memorial in our minds is largely built by Wilfred Owen.’
In honour and remembrance of Wilfred Owen’s attendance at Christ Church, a plaque was placed below the church’s war memorial during the 100th-anniversary commemoration of his death on 4th November 1918. Beautifully carved in blue/grey Welsh slate, the plaque is also a fitting tribute to the shared humanity of all those whose lives were lost in the conflict. The quotation is from Wilfred’s famous poem ‘Strange Meeting’.
It was hand-carved by master craftsman John Neilson who is based in Owen’s birthplace of Oswestry, a fitting personal connection.
On the wall nearby is an original painting by Marie Mairs symbolising the journey of young men during the First World War.
You can read more about the painting here.