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WW1 battlefields that spark poetry and emotion


World War One battlefields that spark poetry and emotion
Today, in a village in northern France, hundreds of guests were set to gather outside a startling white monument to pay homage to Wilfred Owen.

The war poet died fighting alongside soldiers from the Manchester Regiment in November 1918 – just days before the Armistice.

When not engaged in this last pointless battle at Ors, near Cambrai, Owen was squeezed, several men deep, in the basement of a forester’s house.

This small cellar which would have ‘housed’ some 30 soldiers, was where he wrote his last letter to his mother, highlighting the camaraderie of the ‘brothers in arms’: “Of this I am certain, you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here,” he wrote.

The house above has been transformed by Turner Prize nominee Simon Patterson, into a part sculpture, part building, aimed at conveying the enduring relevance of the poet’s work.

Visitors will see Owen’s most famous writings illuminated on the walls and be able to listen to actor Kenneth Branagh reciting words that remained etched in many of our minds, long after leaving school.

Lines from Dulce et Decorum Est are particularly evocative: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge.”

Such is the impact of Owen’s searing descriptions of the futility of war that his poems are unforgettable reminders of the plight of young men sent to their gruesome deaths in the muddy trenches of northern France.

His words have been the first introduction to poetry for millions of British pupils and many enthusiasts would agree with Xavier Hanotte, Belgian translator of Owen’s work into French.

“Some say he’s a war poet, others that he is the greatest poet that ever lived – that’s the view I subscribe to.

“His poetry speaks to us today in the same way that it always has done.”

Hanotte guided us along the canal where Owen and his comrades came to their untimely deaths, men from the 2nd Battalion of the Ashton-based Manchester Regiment.
The regiment lost 14,122 men in the First World War, of those 1,162 were from the 2nd Batallion, including Droylsden’s James Kirk, awarded the highest military medal, the Victoria Cross.

Excerpts taken from the History of the Manchester Regiment by Col HC Wylly, state land on either side of the canal, crossed with wire and hedges, had been transformed into a swamp by the Germans.

As Kirk, Owen and fellow comrades tried to advance, their progress was slow and any soldier caught in the sights of an enemy gun opposite was a sitting duck.

But despite this, on November 4, 1918, while his fellow soldiers were trying to bridge the canal, second lieutenant Kirk took a raft, armed only with a Lewis gun while his colleagues built a footbridge.

Firing on the enemy from a distance of 10 yards in this exposed position, it was only a matter of time before he was shot down. Yet his bravery allowed two platoons to cross. Like Lieutenant Owen, Second Lieutenant Kirk died that day at Oise Canal – he was just 21, Owen was 25.

The poignancy of their sacrifice in a battle that ended in stalemate just days before the Armistice was signed is palpable on a rainy day nearly a century on.

The mayor of Ors, Javky Duminy, who knew little about Owen before coming into contact with the Wilfred Owen Society as the French are not taught his poetry, has worked for five years to see the project come to fruition.

The irony would not be lost on deeply cynical Owen, that it is France rather than his homeland going all out to honour him, although tributes and plaques in his name are scattered around England, including in Oswestry, the Shropshire town of his birth, Shrewsbury and Birkenhead.

But this compelling art work in northern France will doubtless become the most talked about, not least because only the basement of the house where the most famous English war poet spent his last days remains intact.

Simon Patterson explains: “It was the basement that inspired me, this is where Owen wrote that last letter to his mother. There was nothing historic about the house.”

Traditionalists may argue and think a museum would have been more fitting but Patterson wanted something more visually arresting and thought provoking than a bog standard museum.

Up to now, Owen fans have settled for a look at his grave in the cemetery at Ors. A plain white headstone, it is no different from the lines of plain headstones apart from a couple of notes, flowers and crosses left by fans.

Like the cemeteries across northern France, the graves are a powerful reminder of the appallingly high loss of life in the so-called Great War.

More poignant than the headstones, perhaps, are the monuments to the unknown soldiers whose bodies were never found.

Whether fan of Owen or not, a visit to the World War One battlefields is a troubling experience but above all a poignant experience.

Walking in the steps of young men who were shot, gassed, blown up, or who died drenched in blood, mud and slime, you are constantly reminded of the grim death toll in this ‘war to end all wars.

And for Wilfred Own fans the deeply sardonic last line of his most famous poem haunts your footsteps: Dulce et Decorum Est... “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Manchester Evening News
TRAVEL FACTS
The Remembrance Trails project was set up to help those who go to northern France to pay tribute to family members or simply out of interest in World War One.
To better understand the region and what took place go to www.remembrancetrails-northern france.com.
Deanna Delamotta travelled from London St Pancras to Lille in northern France, with Eurostar.
Eurostar operates up to nine daily services from London St Pancras International to Lille with return fares from £69.
Fastest London-Lille journey time is 1hr 20 minutes. Tickets are available from www.eurostar.com or 08432 186 186.
Deanna travelled from Manchester Piccadilly to Euston, with Virgin Trains, www.virgintrains.com
She stayed at Le Mouton Blanc, in Cambrai, a quirky three star hotel, with excellent evening meals, www.mouton-blanc.com.
Another good place to eat is Hotel Restaurant des Digues, www.hoteldesdigues.eu where all the food is locally sourced.
Places of interest in the area include the Matisse Musuem at Le Cateau-Cambresis, birthplace of the famous artist. Also in Le Cataeu is an historic brewery housed in a Benedictine Abbey where Vivat Beer is made.

 

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