As we entered the village, its few straggling houses just as I remembered from when I had googled the place prior to our visit, the car’s sat-nav immediately guided us to the tiny road that we needed: Rue de la Gare and slowly we drove up the narrow lane. I knew what I was looking for – the wonders of Google had prepared me well – and suddenly we were upon it: the tiny Ors Municipal Cemetery nestling at the side of the road opposite farm buildings. We passed the many family graves and tombs, the dates on them confirming the age and history of the village and at the top of the little cemetery I found what I sought.
Beyond the grey and black stoned gothic and baroque family tombs lay the neatly arranged rows of 107 white military headstones and tucked away near the back the unremarkable and uncelebrated grave of England’s greatest war poet, the most read English poet after Shakespeare, Wilfred Owen, who had died in Ors on November 4th 1918 – cruelly, just one week before the War finally ended.
Owen’s poetry stands tall amongst the greatest literary works in our language and it is a measure of his great words and how they have resonated and impacted upon our thoughts and perception not only of the Great War but of all wars when one realises that he only had four poems published within his own short life time. But the power of Owen’s words are enough; arguably his three greatest – and certainly most well known works: Anthem for Doomed Youth, Strange Meeting and Dulce et Decorum Est are the yardsticks by which all other war poetry are and must be judged.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
I have known and loved Owen’s poetry since my late teens almost sixty years ago when I first came upon it as I studied for my A level History at Blackpool Technical College and Mr Parkin, the teacher (or “The Colonel” as we nicknamed him because of his military bearing and military moustache) suggested that as well as learning only the historical facts of the Great War – its causes and its effect upon the world - we needed to “read around” and broaden our understanding. I have been forever grateful to Mr Parkin’s advice on this and many other things and as I have become older I have found Owen’s writing increasingly rewarding and gratifying as I have become increasingly pacifist in my outlook and belief. Now, as a confirmed and confessed pacifist, Owen’s powerful commentary chimes with my own view of the futility, immorality and obscenity of war.
Wilfred Owens draft of his great poem
"Anthem for Doomed Youth"
But, having said that, I also recognise that my pacifist beliefs and love of Owen’s works hides a paradox. The real power of Wilfred Owen’s biting words are that although they do indeed question, and perhaps condemn war, they are not written by a pacifist like me but by a man tried and tested in the heat of battle, a man highly decorated by his country for his gallantry. Wilfred Owen knew all about the horrors of war in the trenches, of gas attacks, and of losing one’s comrades and friends in the most awful of circumstances. He had been awarded the Military Cross in October 1918 when he lead his men in storming German positions: “....for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty....assuming command and showing fine leadership.....inflicted considerable losses on the enemy....throughout he behaved most gallantly.....” read the citation. A little over a month later Owen himself was dead, machine gunned by the retreating enemy as he and his comrades attempted to cross the little canal that runs through Ors and which then marked the front line. Owen and his companions lie buried in that little cemetery and alongside him two soldiers both of whom won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry that can be bestowed upon a British soldier. No, Owen was no shrinking violet, he was a thoughtful and brave warrior and that is why his poetry has such power and resonance still today. Although at the outset of the Great War Owen had certainly pacifist leanings such was his pride and his love of his country that he answered the call to arms. He was not like me a pacifist by proxy – one who has these beliefs but has never himself been tested; Owen knew what it felt like to be in the heat of battle, to lose one’s dearest and bravest friends, to experience war's true terror and horror, and as such his words have added validity: in short, and in modern parlance he had been there, seen it and done it - and he didn’t like what he witnessed. That is why his words carry such raw power, conviction and ultimately truth.
Where Wilfred Owen is buried in the military section
of Ors Municipal Cemetery
As the War dragged to a conclusion Owen was planning upon publishing a collection of his war poems once the War came to an end. he had gathered together many of his works and begun to write a preface to his book ready for publication. He wrote this:
“This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands or anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with poetry.My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful”.
|Picnic by the canal|
Those powerful words: “The pity of war” say it all; read Owen's poems and I defy anyone to think of war again as a glorious thing. The last few days of Owen’s short life are dreadful witness to this. His last days and their aftermath are the awful reality of war - not the swaggering Hollywood version or the jingoistic, pumped up glorious, flag waving, military version but the appalling, immoral, mind and gut wrenching reality, tragedy and pity of War. The Great War and its consequences brought death and injury and hardship to millions but to learn of Owen’s final days personalise all this and with a dreadful symmetry expose war can really mean.
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”
We stood in the bright morning sun, unspeaking by Owen’s grave in the little cemetery and then retraced our steps back into the village centre. It was lunch time, there were no shops in this tiny hamlet but squashed by the side of the post office on the main square we found a little pathway leading to a field. Picnic tables were arranged so we sat there and ate our picnic in the lunchtime sun. At the end of the field were trees and beyond them the canal – where Wilfred Owen and his comrades met their death on November 4th. Itwas a delightful setting – but somehow the events of a century ago hovered overhead.
The cellar where Owen and his comrades
When Owen and his comrades came to Ors, the Great War was drawing to its close. The German army were in retreat and many thousands had already surrendered. On October 31st Owen and his men took refuge in the cellar of a forester’s cottage in a wood on the edge of the village and that night Owen wrote to his mother, Susan, who lived in his home town, Oswestry. He wrote:
I will call the place from which I'm now writing "The Smoky Cellar of the Forester's House". I write on the first sheet of the writing pad which came in the parcel yesterday. Luckily the parcel was small, as it reached me just before we moved off to the line. Thus only the paraffin was unwelcome in my pack. My servant & I ate the chocolate in the cold middle of last night, crouched under a draughty Tamboo, roofed with planks. I husband the Malted Milk for tonight and tomorrow night. The handkerchief and socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, and I have a slight cold!
|Susan Owen, Wilfred's mother.|
So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the Coy. commander snores on a bench, other officers repose on wire beds behind me. At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Coy. in the Old days radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth & a wheeze of jokes.
Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes in the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.
Owen's writing is inscribed on the walls of the sweeping
pathway leading to the cellar.
It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside & the hollow crashing of the shells.
There is no danger down here - or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.
I hope you are as warm as I am, as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here."
Ever Wilfred X
The Forester's Cottage beautifully and sympathetically
remembers Owen and what happened at Ors
But the story of Owen’s death, terrible though it was does not end there. There is an awful sting in the tail which makes the whole story almost too terrible to retell and which details the awful and pitiful sorrow of war.
Exactly one week, seven days, after the dreadful deaths by the side of that little canal in that beautiful but nondescript French village the Great War officially ended on November 11th 1918. And on that day as people throughout Europe thanked their God and in Britain wild celebrations began, Susan Owen listened to the Oswestry church bells ringing - as they were throughout Britain - proclaiming that the war was over. As she listened to the bells she read her son’s letter written in that cellar and telling her that he was safe and in no danger. Whilst reading it a telegram arrived from the War Office in London. It informed her of Wilfred’s death under enemy fire.
|In the darkened room the words of Owen's poems |
projected as they are spoken
It is difficult to find the adjectives to describe the terrible ending to that story, to comprehend the awfulness of what Susan Owen must have felt as she read the letter, read the telegram and listened to the bells. What dreadful symmetry is that? It truly is the stuff of nightmares. If it was the plot of a novel or a Hollywood blockbuster it would be dismissed as "far fetched". For me the only words that come close to describing the sheer obscenity and awfulness of a world at war that allows this sort of thing to occur are those used by Owen himself in his overwhelmingly powerful and biting poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est”. The final words to that great poem – arguably the greatest of the War poems by the greatest of the war poets – say it all:
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old lie: Dulce et Decorum, est
Pro patria mori”
(“Dulci et Decorum Est Pro patria mori” is a quote from the Roman poet Horace and means “It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country” )
And so we left our picnic place, where Owen met his dreadful end, for the last stage in our journey to Ors. To the edge of the village and to a little wood and on the edge of the wood a brilliant white house – the Maison Forestiere – the forester’s cottage where Own had spent the last days of his life. The house has been turned not into a museum but as a commemoration, a kind of shrine to Wilfred Owen and his comrades.
A broad sweeping path leads to the cellar, the
wall of the pathway beautifully engraved with the words of Owen’s poems and his letter to his mother and
through a door and you are in the cellar, empty and unchanged since 1918. It
smells damp and musty, there is no light save that from a tiny window that just
peeps above the outside earth. One can imagine Owen and his fellow soldiers squashed in
here as he described to his mother; it is a place where one can almost touch
the past, heavy with the atmosphere of its past history. It is a place to visit, to
think, to reflect upon what it harbours. It is not, I think, a place to linger – I found it almost suffocating such is its history. Above, the house has been
opened up, where once there would have been small rooms there is an now a large
open space going up into the roof void. It is darkened, silent, you feel isolated
from the world and then the words of Owen's great poems, in English and French are fed through hidden
speakers and as they are spoken the words are
reflected upon the walls. You are surrounded, your senses assaulted by the sound of Wilfred Owen
speaking across the years.
|The Foresters Cottage as Owen would have seen it|
The gateway to the cemetery where
each year on November 4th the French
villagers gather to remember English soldiers
and one of the greatest English poets
There is at Ors no Wilfred Owen theme park to celebrate one of England – indeed the world’s – greatest poets or to retell the story of the place. There are no interactive museums or Wilfred Owen gift shops. There is no pub selling Wilfred Owen ale or Wilfred Owen red wine. There is just a tiny, unremarkable, quiet and unassuming French village that one can drive through in less than a couple of minutes. Its day to day life goes on as it has done for centuries but neither the village nor its residents are ignorant or dismissive or uncaring of Owen's story and of his importance - in fact the opposite. They remember him with a quiet dignity that seemed to me to be most appropriate for this quiet unassuming man who had the gift of words. The village’s little school is named after Wilfred Owen and each year on November 4th the whole village congregate at the little cemetery to pay tribute to the poet soldier and his comrades. They quietly acknowledge - celebrate would be the wrong word - Wilfred Owen and his great words which have done so much to not only record the everyday horror of the Great War but to forcibly remind us of what he so rightly called “the pity of War”. From what I know of Wilfred Owen I think that he might have been satisfied with that.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.