Witley Common and war poet Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen was one of Britain’s leading First World War poets, finding a unique voice to communicate the horrors experienced by ordinary soldiers. He was based for a short time at Witley en route to the front line, and it was his experience in the trenches that defined his individual style. Tragically he was killed one week before the armistice was declared, and his poetry achieved public recognition only after his death.
A military camp was established at Witley Common in January 1915 to train British and Canadian troops before they were sent to the trenches. It was a large base with its own shops and entertainments. One group of shops, billets and stables straddling the Portsmouth Road became known as ‘Tin Town’.
Wilfred Owen: the new officer
At the beginning of the war Wilfred Owen had been teaching in France but he returned to England to enlist in October 1915. In June 1916, after eight months with the 2nd Artists Rifles Officer Training Corps, the 23-year-old English poet arrived at Witley Camp to be commissioned into the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment.
At Witley, he gained recognition for his potential and ingenuity, notably collaborating with his friend and fellow officer 2nd Lieutenant Gregg to improve the design of the standard gas mask.
Wilfred Owen: his poetry
Although Owen had recognised his poetic vocation as early as 1904, and had read widely, his poetry was still largely a private affair. A New Heaven was almost certainly written at Milford, part of Camp Witley, in September of 1916. The title echoes Revelation 21:1, ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth’.
The second verse has an uplifting sense of triumph and glory to be gained from battle:
'Let’s die home, ferry across the Channel! Thus
Shall we live gods there. Death shall be no sev’rance.
Weary cathedrals light new shrines for us.
To us, rough knees of boys shall ache with rev’rence.
Are not girls’ breasts a clear, strong Acropole?
There our oun mothers’ tears shall heal us whole.'
- Wilfred Owen, A New Heaven
The poem was dedicated to one of his colleagues. Alternative manuscripts have the titles ‘To __ on active service’ and ‘To a comrade in Flanders.’ It’ is likely that the comrade Owen had in mind was Lt. H. B. Briggs, who left Witley for the war at the end of August and whom Owen described as ‘quite my closest chum’.
Other than this, there’s little here of the poet who would later be influenced by the ideas of Siegfried Sassoon to draw upon his own experiences and write so vividly and angrily about the true nature of war.
'What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns. '
- Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth
The harsh reality of warfare
On 29 December 1916 Owen left for France with the Lancashire Fusiliers and was very quickly exposed to the full horror of the war: trenches full of water; close proximity to enemy gunfire hammering away day and night; poison gas attacks; long, cold marches on rough roads and through endless mud; nights spent in snow without shelter.
His meeting with Siegfried Sassoon
By May 1917 he was experiencing bad headaches and was hospitalised. Later he was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent back to Britain. At Craiglockhart War Hospital he met Siegfried Sassoon, and under sensitive psychological treatment, he found his poetic voice, experiencing several months of creative energy during which many of his most famous poems were written.
Heroic to the end
Owen returned to active service in France in July 1918. By the end of August he was back at the front line, and in October 1918 he successfully led the Second Manchesters to storm enemy positions at the battle of Joncourt, earning the Military Cross for his bravery.
On 4 November 1918, Wilfred Owen was killed in action near the French town of Ors, exactly one week before peace was declared. Tragically, Wilfred’s family was informed of his death on 11 November, the day of the armistice.
Take an audio guided walk
Following a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Godalming Museum, Surrey County Archaeological Unit and the National Trust have been working together with members of the local community to carry out investigations across the site. This short audio-guided walk will show you round some of the key First World War areas of the camp using original photographs, sounds and recordings, providing an insight to the life of the people based here over 100 years ago.
The Commons’ dry, sandy soil makes it ideal for visits in all weathers. Follow the trails, or go wherever you want, and explore the woods, grasslands and heathland areas.