Spring Offensive Summary

Spring Offensive” by Wilfred Owen is a 1918 poem about a British company’s attack against German troops in World War I.

  • A group of British soldiers await the beginning of battle amid beautiful natural surroundings.
  • When the order is given, the soldiers unceremoniously prepare and set off over a nearby hill.
  • As the soldiers enter the hellish chaos of battle, some die and others manage to survive.

Summary

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

Introduction

"Spring Offensive" is a poem by Wilfred Owen, one of the best-known British soldier-poets of the First World War. The poem concerns the events of April 1917, when Owen and his battalion participated in the Spring Offensive against the Hindenburg Line of German trenches. His letters indicate that he finished the poem in September of the following year, making it his last completed poem before his death on November 4th, 1918, a week before the Armistice was signed. It was first published in 1920 in Poems, a volume of Owen’s poetry edited by his friend and mentor, fellow soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon.

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Summary

In the first stanza, the speaker describes a group of soldiers who have come to a stop against a “last hill” before their next assault. Having stopped, they eat a meal and lie at ease, many of them sleeping “carelessly” against each other’s knees and chests in gestures of clear camaraderie.

In the second stanza, the speaker describes how many others in the group are feeling less able to relax. They are instead standing still and looking out upon the sky in the distance, feeling as if they are at “the end of the world.” The atmosphere around them may be peaceful, the “May breeze” stirring the long grass and summer soothing their woes like “an injected drug,” but the soldiers know that something worse is coming. The grass beyond them is “sharp on their souls,” and the sky seems to harbor something “mysterious” which fills them with fear. The speaker paints a picture of these soldiers in what should be an idyllic setting, “murmurous” with insects flitting through the grass, but something worse is to come.

The next stanza goes on to describe how the soldiers look out thoughtfully upon the field before them and the valley behind them. They recall that the valley was filled with golden buttercups when they walked across it but that there were brambles, too, which seemed to cling to them “like sorrowing hands.” The group of soldiers are still, “unstirred,” and silent, until the word comes for them to begin advancing. At this point, they must prepare themselves for battle. There is none of the traditional pomp and circumstance to mark this moment; there are no bugles blown or flags flown high. The soldiers lift their eyes and look at the sun as if it is a once-beloved friend who is now estranged. In the sunlight, the smiles of the men seem larger, shining brighter; these are smiles of defiance.

The next, brief stanza describes how the soldiers all mount the crest of the hill together. They then begin running out across the open field, thus becoming exposed to enemy fire. Immediately, the sky breaks out with gunfire and explosions, with the result that their blood begins to flow into thousands of “cups,” or craters in the ground. The slopes the soldiers are running across begin to seem extremely steep.

In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker suggests that some of those who ran into bullets they did not see or were killed by exploding shells were caught by God “before they fell.” However, he goes on to ask about those who did rush into the “hell” of battle with their friends, and yet, through some “superhuman” factor, managed to survive, crawling back towards their own lines and slowly regaining their “peaceful” composure. Finally, the speaker asks why those who have survived do not talk about their comrades who were killed in the offensive. There is no reply to this question, nor any obvious answer.

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Themes