The contrast couldn’t be greater. One grave smothered in gold-embossed plaques, bowls of flowers, ornate urns and emotional messages. The other a simple white marble headstone, a couple of wooden crosses, fading paper poppies, a little Canadian flag and a tiny rock plant struggling through the lumpy soil. Yet this is the one we had come to see, the grave of a well-known soldier, the grave of a poet, a dreamer, a hero. Wilfred Owen, a young man lost on the battlefield of World War 1 amidst the horrific, senseless destruction that conflict creates century after century …
Wilfred Owen was shot dead during a madly brave and stupidly pointless fight in the very last week of WW1. Flanked on either side by Private W.E. Duckworth and Private H. Topping, both of the Lancashire Fusiliers, Lieutenant W.E.S. Owen, Manchester Regiment lies not far from the canal he died trying to cross, shot by the German troops on the opposite side of the water.
Earlier that day a group of us, staying in Arras, had met Jacky Duminy, mayor of Ors, a village in Northern France on the ‘Western Front’, at Maison Forestiere.
M Duminy has been the driving force behind getting this unique art work established to Wilfred Owen, “… not a museum, not a memorial, but a quiet place for meditation, reflection and poetry”. On a quiet tree-lined road between P0mmereuil and Ors, the stark white building stands out in solitary remembrance. It is here the poet and fellow soldiers of the 2nd Manchester Regiment, rested on the night of October 31st, 1918, while plans were being drawn up to attack the nearby German troops.
The Wilfred Owen Forester’s House has been transformed into an art installation by British visual artist Simon Patterson in collaboration with French architect Jean-Christophe Denise. M Duminy led us down via a circular path into the cellar where Owen sheltered with over 20 fellow soldiers. Inscribed on the white wall is a quote from his last letter to his mother, including the very poignant words, “There is no danger here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.” He was shot on November 4th and his mother got the news of his death on November 11th 1918, the day WW1 officially ended.
With 10 of us squeezed into the brick arch-roofed cellar it was fairly cramped. On that night in 1918 many more were squashed in, but they seemed in good spirits as they knew the war was nearly over and hoped soon to return home. Kenneth Branagh’s voice came etherally over the audio system, reading out his letter. As a mother and ex English teacher who tried to inspire teenagers to appreciate war poetry through Wilfred’s Owen’s raw verse, I found it extremely moving.
From here we went back up into the main part of the house, now a white shell, with Owen’s most famous poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ engraved across one wall. A continuous loop of his war poetry is read out in English and French, lines projected onto the walls. Slowly everyone tuned into the reading, the calm atmosphere and the evocative voice speaking of horrors from a hundred years ago.
One that resonated particularly was
“Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us …
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent …
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient …
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.”
We then set off on a 7km walk into the nearby forest, Bois L’eveque, literally following in Wilfred Owen’s footsteps, the route he and his troops took to the canal. The trees were in full fig, vivid green leaves almost blinding in the spring sunshine. Birdsong surrounded us, such a contrast to the noise of battle that would have ricocheted through the wood in 1918. Bluebells cut a swathe across the ground, vying for floor space with bright yellow celandines and dainty white anemones …
Eventually we emerged onto a little lane that led us across a railway line to a sign saying, ‘Tombes de Guerre du Commonwealth.‘ Five minutes later we found the ‘Ors British Cemetery’ with neat rows of 107 white military gravestones and a simple cross. Here are buried many of the victims of the nearby battle at the canal, the youngest being only 17 years old.
Just a few metres away is the Sambre-Oise canal and here it finally hit me just how awful this war had been. It’s such a narrow strip of water and so many died trying to float rafts across this now-tranquil stretch of water, gunned down by the enemy, who’d holed up in La Motte Farm, just visible through the trees. M le Maire was being interviewed by a French journalist about Wilfred Owen as we took in the scene, trying to imagine what it would have been like almost a hundred years ago, in the final hours of the war to end all wars …
A trio of guys had set up fishing rods nearby and a few baguettes leant against their big green umbrella. A girl in lycra ran past, a woman walking her dog said bonjour. All so normal, everyday and peaceful … Is it fanciful to hope those young men somehow know how their deaths were not totally in vain?
From here we walked on past the Western Front plaque, telling the story of Ors’ wartime travails. It has a quote from Owen’s ‘With an Identity Disc’. M Duminy told us how the village, on the front line, was badly bombed in both world wars, though many of the buildings have been beautifully restored.
Finally we arrived at Ors Communal Cemetery. In the entrance a huge crucifix towers over the many family graves. Hidden at the back, in a plot of land that is forever ‘home’ is the resting place of a 25 year old young man who, along with a handful of other poets, managed to convey, in searing language, a little of the reality of one of the world’s worst conflicts.
Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
We travelled across to France with My Ferry Link and shared the trip with their friendly and informative representative Ellie. They put together a fascinating weekend with Northern France Tourism. We stayed in the Hotel d’Angleterre in the historic city of Arras. For more information on the Maison Forestiere in Ors click here to download the Wilfred Owen trail.
During this weekend trip we visited a huge French military cemetery (biggest in the world) which was a complete contrast to the simplicity of Ors. Read about Notre Dame de Lorette here.