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By choice they made themselves immune/To pity and whatever mourns in man/Before the last sea and the hapless stars

A few weeks ago I spent a Friday evening reading through some of the war poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I was trying to get to grips with a case where my client had been diagnosed with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was unable to give evidence.

As with last year’s, this is another by Owen where we get an inkling of what it must be like to labour under that burden. He expresses himself so hauntingly through painstaking poetry yet it would surely have been cruel to expose him to the disbelief of cross examination by a hostile stranger in a foreign court room, as is routinely expected of modern trauma victims.

Insensibility by Wilfred Owen


Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling
Losses who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.


And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on Armies’ decimation.


Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds save with cold can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.


Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.


We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.


But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

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Picture of Colin Yeo

Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.


4 Responses

  1. Beautiful post. There is something so weird, but moving and compassionate, about searching through poetry for insight into a client’s mind.

  2. While our traumatised clients have much in common with ‘shell shocked’ soldiers from WWI, one barbarity has ended in the modern forces – making them ‘fit’ to return to the front.

    Owen himself was invalided out of active duty in May 1917. Suffering from shell-shock and fever, and wrestling with his moral dilemmas, he was sent to recuperate at Craiglockart, a war hospital near Edinburgh. Owen was returned to the front line in August 1918. He threw himself into combat, often recklessly. While his unit was crossing a canal near the village of Ors in pursuit of the retreating German forces, Owen was shot and killed by the water’s edge. He was only 25 – and the war was just seven days from its end. Today we would recognise his reckless behaviour and a sense of his foreshortened life as classic symptoms of his PTSD

    Nowadays, once PTSD is recognised return to the site of the trauma takes a very different form. Prolonged Exposure Therapy relies on the reassurance that those things which once traumatised are now at an end. Few of those we see (victims of torture and ill-treatment) can be given such reassurance. This leaves an overwhelming anticipation of the possibility of recurrence – ‘fear’ in other words – makes rehabilitation ‘to the fullest extent possible’ (UN Committee Against Torture General Comment No 3) difficult if not impossible.

  3. PTSD is the baggage that comes with all the patriotism and romanticism mixed to ‘war service’… Thanks for posting this. There is a lot of research on this with Redress and http://www.irct.org/ if you are interested in reading more…