Spring Offensive

by Wilfred Owen

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How does Wilfred Owen depict war in "Spring Offensive"?

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In “Spring Offensive,” Wilfred Owen depicts war as first a matter of waiting, as the soldiers await the battle's beginning. He then depicts war and all its horror in the midst of battle, and finally he describes a release filled with both wonder and guilt.

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In his poem “Spring Offensive,” Wilfred Owen depicts several different aspects of war. First, Owen shows the waiting involved in military operations. As the poem opens, the soldiers are waiting for the battle to start. Some are sleeping. Others are standing still, enjoying the beauty of a spring day, allowing the breezes to enter into them and comfort them. The wait lasts for hours, and the soldiers “ponder the warm field” and the valley and the buttercups.

Then, however, it is time to get ready, to “tighten” for battle. The soldiers clench both body and soul. War is not something to enter into lightly. It takes preparation. The soldiers much become tense, ready for what they are about to do, focused that they may obey their orders when they come.

And then the orders come. The soldiers run up the hill and race over the meadow, and the assault hits them with a great fury. Men fall and die, spilling their blood on “the green slopes.” Some go up “on the hot blast and fury of hell's upsurge,” directly into the thick of the fight. Others “plunged and fell away past this world's verge.” They die, and perhaps God catches their souls before their bodies hit the ground. These soldiers have entered into the hell of war. They find the “fiends and flames,” yet the battle turns them into fiends as well as they commit the “superhuman inhumanities” that war inspires.

Then those who are left alive come crawling back. They seek the “cool peaceful air,” and they wonder that they are still living. Yet they do not speak of those who have died. The speaker asks why they do not, but he never answers the question. Perhaps the soldiers themselves do not know. Perhaps they feel somewhat guilty for being the ones who survive the furor of the battle and come out on the other side.

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What is the historical context of “Spring Offensive” by Wilfred Owen?

The general historical context of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Spring Offensive” is World War One. Owen was an Englishman in his early twenties when the war began. His interests in religion, literature, and education had led him to employment teaching English in France. Owen returned to England, where he joined the army and completed his training. He returned to France in 1916, entering combat as a lieutenant in the Manchester Battalion.

Owen’s personal feelings about the horrors of war were expressed in a number of poems. His personal experiences and reactions were far from unique, as this war combined unprecedented technical ferocity with large numbers of casualties. The upbeat patriotic tone that prevailed back in England clashed with the harsh realities of the battlefield.

The battle that Owen describes in “Spring Offensive” is thought to have taken place in spring 1917, when his company was one of those attacking the German Hindenburg line. The poem poignantly conveys the hellish atmosphere of battle and the dehumanizing effects of combat on its participants.

Like many other soldiers, Owen survived a battle in which many others around him were killed. Hospitalized for a concussion, he was diagnosed with “shell shock,” the term then used for what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After being transferred to an English hospital, he met other poets who were also critical of the war and wrote anti-war poetry. This new direction in English poetry is another aspect of the historical context. Owen recovered sufficiently to return to duty, and was killed in battle in November 1918, only a week before the Armistice.

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