Some of the men halt in the shade of a hill, eating and resting on whatever they can in a careless sleep. Others, though, stand and stare at the blank sky and realize that they have arrived at the end of the world. They watch the May breeze swirling the grass dotted with wasps and flies. Summer has infiltrated their blood like a drug but all they can focus on is the line of grass and the strange sparkling of the sky.
They stand there and look at the field for a long time, and think of the valley beyond full of buttercups and clinging brambles which affixed themselves to their shoes and would not yield. The men stand and breathe until, as a chilling wind, they get the word at which point their bodies and spirits tense up for battle.
It is not a bugle cry or a flag being raised or "clamorous haste" – just a lifting of their heads and their eyes flaring up as if they were looking at a friend with whom the love has been lost. The men rise up and climb over the hill, racing together across the field. Suddenly the sky is on fire against them and little "cups / Opened in thousand for their blood". The green fields seem infinite.
Those who are running and leaping to avoid bullets or face the hot "fury of hell's upsurge" or fall beyond the verge may have been swooped up by God, some say. Those who rush into hell are "outfiending all its fiends and flames" with their own inhuman behavior and their glories and shames. They crawl back out into the cool peaceful air. The speaker wonders why they do not speak of their comrades that "went under".
"Spring Offensive" is one of Owen's most famous poems. It features a ten-syllable line with a mixed iambic-trochaic meter as well as irregular rhymes interspersed with couplets. There are juxtapositions between silence and noise, inaction and action, life and death, and peace and war.
The poem begins in a quiet mood, with some soldiers reclining and sleeping while others stand still, restless on this "last hill" and looking out to the horizon. There is a sense of stillness, calm before the storm. Nature is gentle and beneficent here, with the grass swirling in the breeze and the sun warming their bones and oozing into their veins, bringing respite from pain. The stillness lasts for hours, and the speaker muses on buttercups and brambles. Anecdotally, this scene is said to have originated from a memory of Owen's; the Owen family was returning from church one Sunday evening before the war and Wilfred saw the buttercup petals on his bother Harold's boots, commenting "Harold's boots are blessed with gold." The men are lulled into calmness in their pastoral scene – they "breathe like trees unstirred".
Even in the first two stanzas, however, there are hints that all is not well. Owen foreshadows the doom that is to come with the fact that this is "the last hill" and that some men cannot sleep. There is a sense of watchfulness and waiting. This waiting comes to an end when the "May breeze" becomes a "cold gust" and the men hear "the little word" that alerts them to the imminent battle. This is not a battle tinged with glory and heraldry, for no instruments, flags, songs, or outburst occur. The battle comes upon them quietly but swiftly; their repose is short-lived. Owen is a master at creating a mood of tension. The stanza ends with an ominous and bitter comparison of the sun's inability to prevent the coming clash to a friend with whom the love has been lost. This is also a rejection of Nature herself, for men cannot embrace Nature as well as participate in something so directly contradictory to her.
In the fourth stanza the battle comes down on the men with fury as they race up the hill and across the field – the "whole sky burned / With fury against them". Nature's "green slopes" are now chasms and infinite space. The men are bleeding, with "soft sudden cups / Opened in thousands for their blood". It is a strange image, and one that writer Kenneth Simcox for the Wilfred Owen Association likens possibly to the Eucharist.
In the fifth stanza Owen ventures into more poetic imagery as he depicts the men leaping over "swift unseen bullets" and perhaps being swooped up by God to heaven as they fall over the brink. The inclusion of the phrase "some say" is ambiguous; it could be wry, or it could be musing.
In the final stanza Owen depicts the hell that the soldiers are rushing into. This hell can be literal in that it refers to the enemy's trenches, or it may also be the figurative hell of the underworld. The soldiers there are even more terrible and glorious than the fiends already there, with their "superhuman inhumanities". Finally, the soldiers emerge back into the "peaceful air" but their mouths are silent. They do not speak of their comrades who "went under". Simcox wonders, "Why are they silent about their dead comrades? Can it be that the pity of war, the pity of war distilled, is too concentrated an emotion to bear discussion or even rational thought?"