28 June, 2017

"The Pity of War"

There can be few places on the planet that better illustrate the futility, the grotesqueness, the unfairness, the awfulness and most of all the sorrow of war than that of Ors, a tiny village in northern France.  We had come to this place on our visit to the Great War graves as part of my pilgrimage (see previous blog: “A little piece of Preston deep in a foreign field”: June 24 2017) and had left the immediate area where my grandfather had spent his Great War years to visit Ors which lies about 15 miles east of the town of Cambrais, deep in rural northern France. It is the sort of timeless place where one can imagine nothing ever happens or changes; steeped in tradition, no claims to glory or fame and populated by ordinary folk who, I suspect, have roots there that go back generations and who largely earn their living on the land or at least associated with the land.

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 we slowly drove up the winding, narrow lane. I knew what we were looking for – the wonders of Google had prepared me well – and suddenly we were upon it: the tiny Ors Municipal Cemetery nestling in the fields at the side of the road opposite aged farm buildings and adjacent to the railway track. Solitary visitors, we opened the creaking iron gate and passed the many family graves and tombs, the dates on them confirming the age and history of the village and at the far end of the little cemetery I found what we sought.

Beyond the angel bedecked and ornate grey and black polished stone gothic and baroque family tombs lay the neatly arranged rows of 107 white military headstones standing like soldiers to attention on the parade ground - each one bolt upright, pristine, measured.   I walked along the lines reading the inscriptions; as in other such places that I had visited during this pilgrimage I was both humbled and silenced. These young men had all come to this land a century ago and then been put to rest here many miles away from their homeland - these stones on the edge of this gentle but anonymous village being the only mark of their short but valiant presence in this world.  And then, tucked away near the back, I came upon the object of our pilgrimage,  the simple, 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.

In a sense the gravestone says all there is to know of Owen - a quiet, gentle, brave and eloquent poet/soldier - and of the circumstances of his death and, importantly, the terrible aftermath.

The epitaph simply records:
Lieutenant W.E.S Owen
Manchester Regiment
4th November 1918 Aged 25

"Shall life renew
these bodies?
Of a truth
All death will he annul"

The quote on the headstone was chosen by his mother and is an extract from one of her son's poems, "The End". Thus, the story of Owen's tragic death ends with his mother - the epitaph was her choice of her son's words and so she wrote the final chapter on her son's life. But the story of Owen's final days,  the aftermath and his mother's place in it underscore the awful nature of war. It is apposite indeed that she chose his epitaph.

Owen’s poetry stands tall amongst the greatest literary works in our language. 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 (he was but 25 when he died). But the power of Owen’s words in those few poems and that brief life 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 always 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.

Wilfred Owen's powerful and challenging poetry has been one of the major formative influences on my life and beliefs. I first came across his work in my late teens almost sixty years ago when I studied for my A level History at Blackpool Technical College.  Mr Parkin, the teacher (or “The Colonel” as we nicknamed him because of his military bearing, his clipped no nonsense way of speaking, and military moustache) suggested that as well as learning only the historical  facts of the Great War – its causes and its effects to regurgitate in the A level examination - we needed to “read around” to broaden our understanding. I can remember him now standing in front of the class saying "Read some of the poetry of the war poets like Owen or Sassoon" as, strangely, we sat in the upstairs room of a Jewish synagogue which the college rented for our little class. I have been forever grateful for Mr Parkin’s advice. When I got home to Preston later that day I visited Sweeten's bookshop in Friargate and bought a paperback copy of the Great War poems and since, I have  found  Owen’s writing increasingly rewarding and gratifying, reinforcing my growing pacifist 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 Owen's 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 faux 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 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. Although at the outset of the Great War Owen certainly had  pacifist leanings such was his pride, his honour, his sense of duty and his love of his country that he answered the call to arms and this fact gives his words  a validity and a truth that people like me can never have no matter how sincere or passionate are our views. In modern parlance, Owen 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, he had earned the right to hold his beliefs and to espouse them; he knew what he was talking about.
Where Wilfred Owen is buried in the military section
of Ors Municipal Cemetery

As the War dragged to a conclusion Owen planned to publish a collection of his war poems. He had gathered together many of his works and had begun to write a preface to his book ready for publication. He wrote: “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 yet self effacing words “The pity of war” say it all; read Owen's poems and I defy anyone to again think of war as an exciting or glorious thing. The last few days of Owen’s short life are dreadful witness to this; they and their aftermath are war made real -not the swaggering, bravado Hollywood version or the jingoistic, pumped up glorious, flag waving, military version of war but the appalling, immoral, mind and gut wrenching reality, tragedy and pity of war. The Great War, and its consequences, brought death, injury and hardship to millions but to learn of Owen’s final days is to personalise all this and with a dreadful symmetry and inevitability expose what war can really mean to those involved - and not only the combatants.

Strange Meeting

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. . . .”
The Foresters Cottage as Owen would have seen it.

So, we stood in the little cemetery for a few moments in the bright morning sun, still, unspeaking, heads bowed, and perhaps a little overcome by Owen’s grave and the story that we knew it told. And then, our small gentle homage done we then retraced our steps back into the village centre. It was lunch time, there were no shops to be seen in this tiny hamlet but squashed by the side of the post office on the main square where a farmer's tractor and harvesting machine stood waiting to be set to work in the surrounding fields, 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 a canal - the canal – where Wilfred Owen and his comrades met their death on November 4th 1918. It wasa delightful, tranquil setting – but somehow the events of a century ago hovered overhead. In my mind's eye I could not stop myself from picturing what it must have been like on that November day a century ago as the staccato rattle of machine guns and the cries of men filled the village air.  

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:

Dearest Mother,

The cellar where Owen and his comrades
sought refuge.

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!

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.

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

On November 4th Owen and his men were under orders to leave their cellar and to assist in the building of a pontoon bridge to cross  the Sambre-Oise Canal. It was dangerous work under fire from the desperate but well established German machine guns on the opposite bank. The Manchester Regiment (to which Owen belonged), the Lancashire Fusiliers and the Royal Engineers went into action to assemble the prefabricated sections of the bridge but their work was over before it had barely started.  Under withering fire from the opposite bank, many were killed, among the Wilfred Owen.
Owen's writing is inscribed on the walls of the sweeping
pathway leading to the cellar at the Forester's Cottage. 

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 out - as they were throughout Britain - proclaiming that the war was over. As she listened and heard the cheering crowds on the streets of Oswestry she perhaps dreamed of her son returning safely from France when her thoughts were interrupted. There was a knock at the door. It was a telegram from the War Office in London informing her of Wilfred’s death under enemy fire. Later that same week she received the letter that he had written on October 31st in that cellar, telling her that he was well and she should not be worried, that "There is no danger down here - or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines".
In the darkened room the words of Owen's poems
projected as they are spoken

It is difficult to find the words to comprehend the awful hopelessness that Susan Owen must have felt as she  read the dreaded telegram and listened to the celebrating bells and cheering, happy neighbours - and then to have the knife so dreadfully and cruelly turned inside her by receiving the posthumous letter telling her not to worry and that he was well, that there was no danger. What dreadful symmetry is that? It truly is the stuff of nightmares, enough, I am sure, to profoundly mark a person for the rest of their life. 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 dreadful words to that great poem – arguably the greatest words of all the War poems and 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” )

Susan Owen, Wilfred's mother. 

And so, with this terrible story in mind we left our picnic place, where Owen had met his dreadful end, for the last stage in our journey in Ors. To the edge of the village and to that little wood and on the edge of the wood a brilliant white house – the Maison Forestiere – that forester’s cottage where Owen had spent his last days and from where he had written to his mother in far off Oswestry. The house has been turned not into a museum but a commemoration, a kind of shrine to Wilfred Owen and his comrades.


A broad sweeping, curved 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. Step through the  door at the end of the walkway and you are suddenly in the cellar, empty and unchanged since 1918. No more gleaming white walls, no more bright minimalistic, modernistic architecture but aged, unchanged brickwork and gloomy shadows.  It is damp and musty, earthy as the grave; 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 just as he described to his mother; it is a place where you can almost touch the past, feel the shadows of the men who had been there on those fateful days in late 1918; redolent  with the atmosphere of its history. It is a place to visit, to think, to reflect upon what it harbours. It is not a place to linger or to enjoy – I found it almost suffocating such is its oppressive and tragic story.

The Forester's Cottage today beautifully and sympathetically
remembers Owen and what happened at Or
The low, arched roof must have caused problems for any of Owen's men taller than me. As I stood there, my head almost reaching the damp brickwork above,  the weight of its dreadful history bore down and whispered "Go, leave this place to its past and to its ghosts". Above, the house has been opened up, where once there would have been small rooms there is now a large and high open space going up into the roof void. It is darkened, Bible black, silent, walls white and bare; you feel isolated from the world outside. No bird song enters here, no sun or blue sky lights the room, no view of the outside woodland distracts your attention.......and then, as you stand in the blackness, confused, disorientated, ill at ease with where you are, the words of Owen's great poems, in English and French are fed through hidden speakers. And as they are spoken the words, each poem's lines flicker upon the walls; in the darkness your  senses are assaulted by Owen's great and dreadful words speaking from the grave and across the years, telling of man's inhumanity to man and of the unimaginable horror and obscenity of war
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 entertain or even to celebrate one of England's – indeed the world’s – greatest poets or to retell the story of the place. There are no interactive museums or Wilfred Owen gift shops selling volumes of his work or unsuitably embellished stationery or  tastelessly decorated tea towels. There is no pub flying Union flags or selling Wilfred Owen ale or Oswestry vin rouge. There is  no fast food joint enticing the madding crowds with Wilfred Owen burgers or the Wilfred Owen plat du jour.  No, 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 gentle unassuming man who had the gift of words to express his quiet but powerful beliefs and to tell of the horrors that he was witness to.  The village’s little school is named after Wilfred Owen and each year on November 4th the whole village congregate at that bleak but beautiful little cemetery at the end of Rue de la Gare on the edge of the farmer's fields and near the railway track to pay their tribute and listen to the great but terrible words of the poet soldier and his comrades. They quietly acknowledge - celebrate would be the wrong word - Wilfred Owen and his great words which have, for so many years  forcibly reminded us of what he so rightly called “the pity of War”. From what I know of Wilfred Owen, this gentle but valiant man, 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.


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