Wilfred Owen

September 19, 2013

the cellarDSC_0154Today I carried out the last duty I’d set myself as an English teacher (ret’d) when I finally visited Owen’s grave. It’s in a godforsaken village in northeastern France – Ors, on the Sambre Canal, where he was killed a week before the end of the First World War as he and his men attempted to build a bridge across the canal. He is buried in a military annexe in the local communal cemetery; all bar one of the men buried there were killed on the same day; there are two VCs among them. It’s all very ordinary, just like the dozens of other war cemeteries in this part of France. I looked at the canal: how you’d build a bridge across it under gunfire beats me. Pat Barker imagines it graphically in the final volume of her trilogy, The Ghost Road.

A couple of miles away is the Maison Forestiere, which is the house from the cellar of which Owen wrote his last letter to his mother. It’s been turned into what I can best call a poetry installation: painted white, inside in darkness Owen’s poems are projected onto glass panels and read aloud (some of them) by Kenneth Branagh. Some have been translated into French and read aloud, too: finally French readers are meeting Owen’s poems and France realises that she has one of England’s greatest twentieth-century poets buried here.

Listening to the poems was moving; there were the usual well-known ones, some early fragments and some I hadn’t met before. The translations into French were interesting: sometimes the translator had succeeded in capturing some of the alliteration, assonance and especially half-rhyme that characterise Owen’s greatest work (Exposure, Strange Meeting) but very often s/he hadn’t, for it was impossible, and somehow this underlined for me just how good his poetry is.

The cellar is empty, cleaned out and is the same space where Owen wrote his last letter: you can sit there and hear it, in English and French, and be still with your thoughts.

It’s a fitting memorial, I felt, and worth a detour, as Michelin puts it. There are details on the tourism website of Le Cateau Cambresis, the nearest large town.

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5 Responses to “Wilfred Owen”


  1. ‘Strange Meeting’ was the first of Wilfred Owen’s poems I ever read, probably when I was around thirteen, and I’ve never forgotten it. I can only imagine how poignant the readings in France, so close to where he was killed, must be.

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  2. Peter Owen Says:

    One of your correspondents wrote in an article that Ors, where Wilfred Owen is buried, is a godforsaken village. I strongly object. Ors is not a godforsaken village. It is simply a small village that each year pays homage to Wilfred Owen on the 4th November, when he was killed on the banks of the canal or perhaps on a makeshift pontoon in the middle of the canal. No one saw him die. Many people from Ors and the surrounding communes gather in front of the church and march up to the cemetery in which Wilfred is buried. Speeches are made and poems read. Flowers and wreaths are laid on Wilfred’s headstone. A concert is held in the church. Afterwards the Salle de Fetes serves a cold buffet with wine and beer.

    The hospitality of Ors is a generous legend among those who visit.

    Peter Owen

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    • litgaz Says:

      The words were mine, not those of a correspondent. The day I visited, the village seemed grim and bleak, like so many of those wrecked by the war. I did not, and do not wish to, cast any slur on the people or their tributes to Owen and the British war dead. I was very impressed by the tribute that now exists in the Maison Forestiere.

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  3. […] war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his […]

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  4. […] I’ve visited the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau Cambrésis in northern France, which is the house in the cellar of which Owen spent his last few nights alongside his men and from where he wrote his last letter home; it’s been turned into a a very moving memorial installation. And then there is his grave, one among dozens of others all killed that same day, in the nearby village of Ors. […]

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