In the footsteps of Wilfred Owen

To commemorate the centenary of WW1 we are running a series of three posts from our recent trip to the WW1 sites of Nord de Calais.

Our little tour group of bloggers, led by the infectiously bubbly Sarah from four bgb and Ellie from MyFerryLink, crossed the English Channel on Friday afternoon to drive to the charming town of Arras in Northern France. The ferry journey was so speedy that by the time I’d polished off a steak dinner we had pretty much arrived in Calais. Honestly, considering the journey was so easy and stress free I genuinely felt embarrassed that it had been a decade since I’d last been on one!

Anyway, an hour and a half later we arrived at the charming Hotel d’Angleterre where we all laid our heads to rest for the night in preparation for the ‘In the footsteps of Wilfred Owen’ walking tour in the morning.

wilfred owen trail

Wilfred Owen was an English solider and one of the leading poets of the First World War. His work stood in stark contrast to the public perception of the War and the patriotic verse written by earlier war poets.

Or so says Wikipedia…

It is at this point in this post that I should probably be honest. Prior to this trip I know nothing about Wilfred Owen and, shamefully, pretty much nothing about WW1 in general. Please don’t berate me for this; I am the product of a school which pretty much left the wars to the boys and Tudors and cooking to the girls.

My point is, I felt nothing for Owen or what he meant to the war, I saw the walk as a collective look at a company of men through their optimistic yet conclusive days in Ors.

It was at dinner that evening that fellow traveler Deborah, a writer for 50connect, quite rightly told me that ‘A journalist answers questions and an artist (or historian in my case) poses them’. So that night I went searching for the ‘answers’ by reading all of Owen’s poems.

The next day as we walked through Wellington’s Quarry, a line from ‘Strange Meeting’ was projected onto the wall and the significance of Owen’s work finally hit me…

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend

For me this poignant line epitomises the general sentimentality towards WW1.  Owen’s poetry is so evocative of the mood during the war that it lies as a haunting memento of the waste it bore and the scars it left. Furthermore, it made me look back on the walk with very different eyes.

Prior to starting the trail we were met by Jacky Duminy, mayor of Ors, a village in Northern France on the ‘Western Front’, at Maison Forestiere. Duminy has been the driving force behind getting this unique art work established to Wilfred Owen, and says it’s “… not a museum, not a memorial, but a quiet place for meditation, reflection and poetry”. The Maison Forestier is where Wilfred Owen and fellow soldiers of the 2nd Manchester Regiment rested on the night of October 31st 1918. Plans were being made for a suicidal mission to cross a nearby canal to attack units of the rapidly withdrawing German army. The words of Owens last letter home to his mother, written in the cramped basement, are plastered along the entrance. Considering the situation and Owen’s aptness for portraying the stark reality of the war this letter was surprisingly optimistic.

Letter To Susan OwenLetter To Susan Owen

Letter To Susan OwenLetter To Susan Owen

Dearest Mother,

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,  & tomorrow night. The handkerchief & socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, [fn1] & I have a slight cold!

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & 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 into 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

Source: Wilfred’s last letter home to his Mother. Copyright of The Harry Ransom Center / The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate.

Four days after this letter was written, at the age of 25, Wilfred Owen was dead.

Even though his fate resembled that of many on the battlefield, who died barley a week before the war, this was particularly tragic because it epitomised not only the destruction wrought by the First World War but on the talent it had engendered.

The trail follows in the footsteps of the poet during his final days, through a landscape which once again knows peace after having suffered the ravages of war twice in the last century.

‘This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor 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 the true Poets must be truthful.’

Wilfred Owen’s draft Preface, prepared for a collection of war poems he hoped to publish in 1919.  Written in Ripon, Yorkshire, in 1918.

 

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Information about this trip

Historical Honey travelled to France with MyFerryLink

MyFerryLink operates 16 daily crossings on the Dover-Calais route. Fares for a car and up to four passengers start from just £36 each way online for any duration travel and from £29 return for a day trip. To find the best fares, visit www.myferrylink.com or call 0844 2482 100

Wilfred Owen / Maison Forestière in Ors

Entry to the house is free of charge. Open Monday to Saturday (except Tuesdays) from 10am to 1pm, and 2-5pm. Also open the first Sunday of every month from 2-5pm.

For more information on the Maison Forestière in Ors, and to download the Wilfred Owen trail, visit www.tourisme-cambresis.fr/following-owen

Hôtel d’Angleterre

We stayed at the Hôtel d’Angleterre. A double room starts from €104 per night on a bed and breakfast basis. www.hotelangleterre.info

Nord-Pas de Calais Tourist Board

For more information on the Nord-Pas de Calais, visit  www.northernfrance-tourism.com

Finally, a big shout out to all the lovely bloggers I met on this trip @flaneurzine @scottbalaam @DianePriestley @quirkytraveller – If you are a lover of culture, travel and sport make sure you give them all a follow!

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