Wilfred Owen: the Tracks to the Trenches
Part One: Wilfred Owen
The essay for Shrewsbury Technical School merited 17/20 with the comment “You would have done better to keep to the 3rd person.” Today, it reads rather pompously from someone aged only fifteen. “The first striking impression on entering one of our large stations at a busy time is the number of people crowding the platforms & jostling and hurrying to and fro apparently in the greatest confusion … here all classes & conditions meet & every conceivable type may be seen …”
The year was 1908, the author of the essay, “Description of a Railway Station at a busy Time of Day” was Wilfred Owen.
Another schoolboy essay bore the unpromising title of The Imagined Effects on the Country of a Strike among Railway Workers. Ten years later he would write The Send Off a poignant poem contrasting the departure of the ‘heroic’ men to the Front and his anticipation of the unheralded return of a smaller band. Whence came this insight into railways? His father was Assistant Superintendent at Shrewsbury Station. It’s hard not to feel real admiration for Tom Owen. In Oswestry he had fallen in love with a girl from above his station. To better himself, he sets his sights on India and is offered a job with the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. You only need glance at the company logo to sense the driving force of the Raj: the crown, the elephant and the locomotive. The motto reads Arte non ense ‘by art not the sword’.
How to get there to take up the appointment? Tom took himself to Liverpool docks and found a captain willing to let him work his passage. He signed on and after four weeks he’s in Bombay and by Christmas 1880 he is installed with the GIPR, as Clerk in the General Traffic Manager’s Office. During his service he will have seen one of the great railway edifices of the world arise, the Victoria Terminus.
And so Tom and Susan wrote a few times a week for eleven years, before he was called home by a family crisis. His plans to return to India with Susan were derailed and they married in December 1891. But his affection for India was also undying, nineteen years later when they bought a house in Monkmoor, Shrewsbury, they named it Mahim [pronounced Maaheem] Mahim is derived from ‘Mahimavati’ meaning miraculous in Sanskrit.
Alas, this was not a house to bring joy to the Owen family. Wilfred spent his last two days of leave there in 1918, before returning to France and death on the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal. It was here his parents received the news of his death as the bells rang out for the end of the war.
Over a hundred years later the house has been listed. English Heritage explained: “Far from the Western Front, 69 Monkmoor Road is the place where Owen began to find his own poetic voice. The house is little altered, and he would still feel at home in his attic bedroom. It was his last real home and is a tangible link to one of one of our greatest war poets.”