From 1914-1918, hundreds of thousands of soldiers got their last glimpse of Britain from Kent’s Channel ports as they were packed onto troop ships to join regiments across Northern France. Amanda Fisher took the same route to pay homage to one of those men.
Two hours’ drive from Calais, I’m strolling along the bank of a canal near the small village of Ors, in the Nord-Pas de Calais region.
It’s Sunday and the church bells are tolling. To right and left the countryside resembles an Impressionist painting. The waterway is lined with tall, leafy Poplar trees; there are meadows full of cattle, the hills beyond roll into the distance – an idyllic scene, glowing in the spring sunlight.
It’s hard to conceive of the ghastly sights, sounds and smells that once shattered this tranquil landscape. Yet here, at dawn on 4th November 1918, the bodies of hundreds of soldiers littered these fields. Bludgeoned, blinded, blown to smithereens, their hopes and dreams ended in the first minutes of brutal engagement as they floundered through a blasted land, thick with mud, blood and the gory detritus of war.
They lost their lives horribly in a futile attempt to claim a few extra inches on the map of Europe at a time when both sides knew the First World War was over, and to carry on fighting was a cynical, cruel waste of time and troops.
After the action, shocked survivors found a pair of standing bodies – an English Tommy and a German Fritz – welded face-to-face in death by the impact of their bayonet charge.
On that day, England lost more than its fair share of brave men. In their midst lay a poetic genius whose compassionate and skilful writing still stirs the souls and breaks the hearts of millions of readers almost a hundred years after his death.
Wilfred Owen was just 25 years old and had everything to live for. A German bullet cut down the young officer as he turned to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal.
A gifted poet, whose talent was recognised by celebrated author and war poet Siegfried Sassoon, Second Lieutenant Owen had already served and survived a tour of duty with the Manchester Regiment in Northern France. He had been hospitalised in the UK with shellshock, recovering and returning to the Western Front shortly before his last battle.
Billeted in the cramped, smoke-filled cellar of a forester’s house in woods near Ors in late October 1918, Owen took time to write to his mother: “It’s a great life,” wrote Owen, “you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. Ever Wilfred x”.
His mother was to receive his letter on 11 November, 1918, the day the Armistice was declared, along with a telegram informing Susan and Tom Owen that their beloved son had died in action seven days earlier.
The words of that last letter home are carved now into the stone wall of a curved walkway that leads to the brick-lined cellar of the forester’s house. They form part of a 1.5 million Euro project that commemorates Wilfred Owen’s unique contribution to our understanding of war through his letters, manuscripts and shocking, realistic poetry evoking the horrors of the trenches and gas warfare.
The tiny cellar remains bare and untouched, but the 18th century house above has been transformed into a 21st century sculptural object, its entire brick facade painted stark white to resemble bleached bone, the original roof encased and glazed to form a face-down open book.
The gutted interior is now a sanctuary, lined by translucent glass panels, each etched with fragments of original text from Wilfred Owen’s best-known and much-loved works, complete with his corrections, scribbles and crossings-out. The drafts bear testament to the poet’s struggle with the barbaric absurdity of war: “My subject is War, and the pity of War.”
Included are lines from Dulce et Decorum Est, Anthem for Doomed Youth, The Dead Beat, Strange Meeting, and Spring Offensive; each poem backlit by waves of coloured lights activated by the recorded voice of actor Kenneth Branagh playing inside the room. Branagh’s stirring readings pitch the poems across the open space. They rise and fall from the walls and reverberate around the roof lights, before flowing out into the l’Évêque forest beyond.
The readings last an hour. You can leave at any time, or listen to all the poems.
It’s an impressive memorial and a powerful place, made all the more effective by being so simple. Unlike other war museums, there are no artefacts, no tanks, no weapons or uniforms. It was created as: “a quiet place that is suitable for reflection and the contemplation of poetry,” gently glorifying the art that has come out of the chaos and tragedy of war.
Devised by British artist and Turner Prize nominee Simon Patterson, working alongside French architect Jean-Christophe Denise, the Forester’s House took seven years to complete. It was accomplished through France’s Artconnexion and New Patrons’ Programme, which gives ordinary people the opportunity to commission an artwork unique to their community.
“Considering Wilfred Owen’s an Englishman,” said Simon, “and his war poetry only recently translated into French, it’s amazing that the local Commune decided to create this unique centre for poetry based around Owen’s writings. I’m immensely proud to have been chosen to design this modern tribute to a man many consider the greatest poet of the First World War.”
The project was funded almost entirely by European grants, and is an internationally-important cultural attraction highlighting the contemporary and universal nature of Owen’s work.
Since it opened in October 2011, The Forester’s House (La Maison Forestière) at Ors, near Cambrai, has attracted thousands of visitors drawn to discover the man Dylan Thomas called: “a poet of all times, all places, and all wars.” Many who come to pay homage are visitors from Germany.
“Owen’s poetry is apparently extremely popular there,” explained Simon, “It’s a poignant reminder that every side participating in what became known as ‘The War to end all Wars’ can come together here to share one young soldier’s intimate thoughts and feelings.”
Now,120 years after Wilfred Owen’s birth, a free audio-guided walk has been added to the memorial, following the route Owen took on the last day of his life. The 6 km trail (allow 1¾ hours), starts at the Forester’s House, passes through the wooded beauty of the Bois l’Evêque and skirts the village of Ors, before it ends on the bank of the Sambre-Oise canal.
After all these years, Wilfred Owen’s bleak words: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” continue to carry across borders and speak to nations about the foolishness of war – its horror, grief and waste – and the terrible impact warfare still has on the world today.
Second Lieutenant Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC lies alongside 30 of his fellow soldiers buried beneath pristine rows of crisp white headstones inside the compact War Graves Commission Cemetery at Ors.
All information regarding The Forester’s House and the Nord Pas de Calais region can be obtained from www.tourisme-cambresis.fr
The Wilfred Owen Memorial at Ors, near Cambrai, is open daily (except Tuesdays), 2pm-4pm (longer during the summer).
After your visit, walk across the road to the Estaminet de l’Ermitage, Le Bois l’Evèque which serves a range of tasty local specialities.