How did Wilfred Owen come to enlist in what Patrick Baty, the regiment’s historian, has described as ‘perhaps the most curious regiment in the British Army’?

When the First World War broke out Owen was in Bordeaux. He was a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz. Letter to his mother 10 July 1915, from Bordeaux: ‘… I have written to Artists’ Rifles without address. If I don’t get an English commission I should like to join the Italian army …’ .

On 21st October he enlisted in the Artists Rifles Officer Training Corps – from its formation the unit had proved popular with volunteers, especially from the public schools and universities. Early in 1915 selected officers and NCOs were transferred to a separate Officers Training Corps. For seven months Owen trained at Hare Hall Camp in Gidea Park, Essex.

The Origins of the Artists Rifles

To understand better Owen’s military career moves, we need to return to the era of Napoleon III and the life class of Carey’s School of Art in Bloomsbury!

Edward Sterling (how fitting a surname) summoned his fellow students to a meeting at his studio. At a second meeting 119 signed up for what was formally constituted in February 1860 as the 38th Middlesex (Artists’) Rifles Volunteer Corps. Its HQ was at Burlington House, the new home of the Royal Academy. Its first commanders were Frederic Leighton and Henry Wyndham Philips. The initial intake were the creative types actors, engravers, musicians, painters and sculptors. Holman Hunt, William Morris, Millais and Watts were included. A decision to include professions other than the creative ones soon led to their dilution architects and lawyers made up 24%, doctors 10% and civil engineers 6%.

Owen’s subsequent career

On 4th June 1916 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lt in the Manchester Regiment and posted to Milford Camp in Surrey. At the end of 1916, he was sent to France. Following a series of traumatic events, he was treated at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh, where he was diagnosed with shell shock. His doctor encouraged him to write down his experiences and dreams of his time on the Western Front. While there, Owen wrote some of his best-known poems, including Dulce Et Decorum Est, in which he describes the stark realities of trench life.

In July 1918, Owen returned to active service in France. Exactly a week before the Armistice was signed, on 4 November 1918, Owen, aged 25, was killed in action, while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise Canal. His mother was informed of the death of her son by telegram on 11 November.

Back to the Rifles

Owen’s posthumous Military Cross citation is testimony to the training he received at Hare Hall Camp from the Rifles Officer Training Corps.

‘2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manchester Regt. attached. 2nd Bn.  For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.’ (30 July 1919, Gazette issue 31480)

The unit’s badge featured in profile the heads of Mars God of War and Minerva Goddess of Wisdom. The badge was saluted in the regimental rhyme “Mars, he was the God of war, and didn’t stop at trifles. Minerva was a bloody whore. So hence The Artists’ Rifles.”

When we look back to the creation of the Artists Rifles by Edward Sterling and his engravers, musicians, painters and sculptors, I’m sure they would have been proud of Owen’s post-war publishing saga. Proud enough for us and them to award Owen an Honorary Commission in the Artists Rifles.

And a final note from Patrick Baty “The more one learns of it the more remarkable one realises that it was.”

By Keith Pybus