WILFRED OWEN AT ORS
We have our own poet, Wilfred Owen,
here in the village of Ors in northern France.
The village lives along the slow canal
tucked under Bois l’Evêque; the railway
(steel scorning water) goes for higher ground.
The nearby military camp has closed.
There is a bare, unbeautiful brick church,
a sober Mairie and a Salle des Fêtes;
one café, a new médiathèque, a school.
And of course the leafless cemetery.
Because our poet is a dead poet,
enlisted in that pale battalion
of young men buried with their mystery.
Owen delivered up his mastery
at the eventual, exhausted end
of a seemingly unstoppable war
that devastated like a lava flow,
travelling unnaturally over the flat land.
He was also an English poet, who
mused a long hour by Shrewsbury clock;
bred to the seamed, compacted language
of Keats and Shakespeare. But he had travelled
in other realms of gold; it was at first
the carefree troubadours took him to France,
then teaching, then the deep trench of the war.
In January nineteen seventeen
he suffered the extremes of fire and ice.
The war might end, but no-one speaks of this.
The Manchesters hunker down in Bois l’Evêque.
Lieutenant Owen writes a letter to
his mother Susan (it will be the last
of some six hundred that he wrote to her).
‘There is no danger here’; nor was there, in
the cellar of the red-brick Forester’s House—
now kept for him, and for those gathered there.
The danger waited at the cold canal.
He died in water but now lies in earth,
here with the men who fell with him, at Ors.
He hated war but gave himself to it
in the unswerving sleepwalk of the time.
November twenty eighteen signifies
a hundred-years-long lamentation for
an English soldier who went out into
the morning mist for his strange meeting with
the poet who sleeps now as one of us.
We have remade the Forester’s House
in ghostly, moonlit white (as if it grew
out of his gravestone), and furnished it
with Owen’s words; those words that understand
the wounded things we are. Whoever drives
down the straight, narrow road from Landrecies
through Bois l’Evêque to Pommereuil today
will ask who lives there. Tell them it is where
our own dead poet lives his afterlife.
* * *
‘Let us sleep now…’ These are the last words of Wilfred Owen’s magisterial poem ‘Strange Meeting’. And Owen sleeps now in the village cemetery at Ors in northern France, a grenade’s throw from the spot where he and eighteen colleagues gave their lives in a doomed attempt to cross the Sambre-Oise canal just one week before the end of the war.
It was the steady stream of British visitors to this cemetery that alerted long-serving mayor Jacky Duminy to the fact that there was something (or someone) exceptional in his back yard. And it was Jacky Duminy’s curiosity, and the reciprocal enthusiasm of these visitors, that led to the formation in 2005 of the Wilfred Owen Association (France), working in close alliance with the parent association in the UK, chaired by the poet’s nephew, Peter Owen. Since this time, the date of Owen’s death — 4 November — has been commemorated annually by the people of Ors (including schoolchildren), local dignitaries, and many visitors; including Peter Owen himself, who has never missed one of these occasions to honour the memory of his soldier-poet uncle.
From the very beginning it was one of the challenges of the Association to rehabilitate the nearby Maison Forestière, the simple Forester’s House where Owen and his men had spent the last days before their fatal mission, and in the tiny cellar of which he had written his last letter to his mother. The house was owned by the Army, which had no further use for it. Collaboration between several groups and individuals, piloted by Jacky Duminy, eventually enabled the French cultural enterprise Artconnexion to approach the English artist Simon Patterson, who came up with an arresting and original design. The house would become an open book, and the interior a kind of light-show for the presentation of Owen’s poems, in both English and French; with recorded readings to match.
This ambitious project was realized thanks to the seriousness and generosity with which the French undertake things cultural. All the financing came from French sources, local, departmental, regional and national; a request for support from the British Council was rebuffed. (One reflects, ruefully, that it is impossible to imagine anything comparable happening in the opposite direction — pre- or post-Brexit.) It was agreed at the outset that the cellar should be left in its original, bare brick state; and a descending circular path, engraved with the text of Owen’s last letter, leads the visitor first down here, where the celebrated letter was written. Only then do we climb stairs into the transformed interior of the house, where Kenneth Branagh stuns the listener with the panic of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, the gravity of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, the resignation of ‘The Send-Off’.
It was a day of great satisfaction and celebration when the transfigured house was officially opened, by Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand, in October 2011. And since this time, thanks to the participation of the Tourist Office in Cambrésis, visits to the house have become an essential part of the trail through WW1 battlefields and memorials. A highlight of the early days, in September 2012, was the first production of Xavier Hanotte’s play La Nuit d’Ors in the purlieus of the house, eerily summoning Owen’s presence and concluding with the writing of that last letter. And there have been other presentations, by Lille’s Goethe Institute and a performance of Stephen Macdonald’s play Not About Heroes (featuring Owen and Sassoon) by the Feelgood Theatre on tour from Manchester. Of course, this house like any other requires maintenance, and it was a matter of relief that the Forester’s House was in June this year accorded the status of a maison illustre, thus removing a financial burden from the local community. It is pleasing to record that Jacky Duminy has meanwhile been awarded the British Empire medal by the Queen, for his tireless work devoted to the memory of Owen and his fellow soldiers who fought in and for France. With the literal centenary due in November 2018, the forces lined up behind Owen and his work are formidable, and the commemoration has every prospect of being a memorable event.
It was my participation in the project as a Member of the Committee of the WOA here in France, and my sense of how thoroughly the local community has adopted the poet, which occasioned the poem ‘Wilfred Owen at Ors’, written in 2012 and published here for the first time.
© Damian Grant, 2016