Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was a well-known First World War poet, who spent some of his army career at the army camps in Milford and Aldershot.
He enlisted on the 21st October 1915 in the Artists’ Rifles, and was in training for the next seven months before being formally discharged on the 3rd June 1916. He was commissioned the next day as a second lieutenant and reported to the 3/5th (Reserve) Battalion Manchester Regiment at Milford Camp on the 12th June 1916. In Hibberd’s book, Wilfred Owen, Owen had found that everything was strange, “the country, the people, my dress, my duties, the dialect, the air, food everything”. He found the camp large enough for a dozen battalions of 800-900 men each. The men were divided into four companies and each company had four platoons. Owen had his own platoon to command. A map in the Godalming Local Studies Museum shows they were grouped in three areas, Witley North Camp. Witley South Camp and Milford Camp, Owen was in the largest, North Camp. He was in officers’ quarters set apart, near Warren Lodge.
On the 7th July 1916 Owen was sent to Talavera Barracks in Aldershot, attached to the 25th Battalion Middlesex Regiment. He attended a musketry course at Mychett Camp, Farnborough for a fortnight, and was classified as ‘Ist Class Shot’, qualified to command firing parties. He returned to Witley Camp, and attended gas lectures, and worked with a friend to devise improvement to the gas mask.
While at Witley Camp his brother, Harold visited him on the 14th September 1916. Owen wrote two poems dated September 1916. Purple, mentions bright darkling glows of fine stars, strong fruits, wine, passion, flame of evening sets – hardly someone waiting to be sent to war. The British Library has three drafts of the second poem, A New Heaven with no clear indication as to the final draft.
1. A (The - crossed out) New Heaven
1st line, Seeing we have not (never - crossed out) spied gay Fairland
2. Heaven (A New Heaven - crossed out)
1st line, Seeing we never found gay Fairyland
3. To a Comrade in Flanders, dated Sept. 1916
1st line, Seeing we never spied (gay - crossed out) frail Fairlyand
Hibberd suggests the sonnet of 1916 was reworked and ‘quarried’ for Owen’s well-known poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917).
Owen undertook further training in various parts of England and on the 29th December 1916 crossed into France to join the 2nd Manchesters on the Somme. In January 1917, in the second and coldest week he led his platoon into the trenches. In March having fallen through a shell hole and being blown out of a trench he was diagnosed with shell-shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. In November he returned to the Manchesters in England, and returned to the front in September 1918 and won a Military Cross for his courage during the final advance on the German lines. However he was killed on the 4th November 1918 just seven days before Armistice, while in action on the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal. He was just 25 years old.