Isaac Rosenberg, ‘The Road’, 1911
The road leads me to the last resting places of three English poets whose lives were cut short by the war of 1914-18: Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. Along with Siegfried Sassoon’s often bitter poems of war, the verses of Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg exerted a powerful influence on me during my teens, and have – more than any other single factor – shaped my understanding of the war. Edward Thomas came later for me, and is not really a ‘war poet’ at all, since all of his poems that deal with the war (somewhat obliquely) were written before he embarked for the Front in late January 1917. Unlike the others, he did not record his first-hand experience of the horrors of war.
Isaac Rosenberg, Self Portrait, 1915 (detail)
It was poems by Isaac Rosenberg such as ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ (with its ‘queer sardonic rat’) and the horrifyingly visual ‘Dead Man’s Dump’which had the most powerful effect upon when I first read them in the 1960s. Unlike the officer-poets of the Great War like Sassoon, Blunden, Brooke and Owen, Isaac Rosenberg was a private soldier who came from a poverty-stricken East End background.
Rosenberg’s parents were Russian Jews who had fled from pogroms in Lithuania to settle in one room in a house in Cable Street, in the heart of the Jewish community in the East End of London. Jean Moorcroft Wilson has written of his early years:
It was an existence on the edge of destitution and would remain so for most of Isaac’s childhood and teenage years. It is against this background of severely limited horizons that we must measure his achievements. For his poverty, as much as his Jewishness, marked his life and shaped his work.
From a young age, Rosenberg was interested in both visual art and poetry but poverty forced him to leave school at 14 and take a job. His mother managed to find him an apprenticeship with an engraver (with the unlikely name of William Blake), but Rosenberg found engraving tedious. He took night classes in art at Birkbeck College, winning several prizes between 1907 and 1909, but longed to give up the apprenticeship to study art full-time. In 1911, three wealthy Jewish women offered to pay his fees at the Slade School of Art, where he studied studied alongside David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and Dora Carrington.
He was writing poetry, too, gaining some recognition with poems published in Poetry magazine on Ezra Pound’s recommendation. However, suffering from chronic bronchitis, and afraid it would worsen, Rosenberg decided to emigrate to the warmer climate of South Africa, where his sister Mina lived. It was in Cape Town that he heard that war had been declared, and wrote ‘On Receiving News of the War‘, a poem that expresses a deep sense of foreboding:
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.
While others wrote about war as patriotic sacrifice, Rosenberg was critical of the war from its onset. According to Jon Stallworthy, writing in Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War, the Rosenbergs were Tolstoyans and Isaac, ‘the most vulnerable of men’, hated the idea of killing. However, Rosenberg returned to England in October 1915 to enlist in the army. Jean Moorcroft Wilson again:
When Rosenberg did finally enlist towards the end of 1915, he was entirely frank about his motives: ‘I never joined the army for patriotic reasons,’ he wrote … from his training depot. ‘Nothing can justify war. I suppose we must all fight to get the trouble over.’ Another incentive, he admitted, had been money: ‘I thought if I’d join there would be the separation allowance for my mother.’
Isaac Rosenberg, photograph possibly taken October 1917
Private Rosenberg was eventually assigned to the 11th Battalion, The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. He was sent to the Somme where he was killed, aged 27, returning from a night patrol at dawn on 1 April 1918. He was first buried in a mass grave, but in 1926, his grave was moved to Bailleul Road East Cemetery, near the village of St. Laurent-Blangy, outside Arras. Which is where I found his grave.
A general view of Bailleul Road East Cemetery
During a German offensive, the English made an attempt to capture Arras on the 28th of March 1918. Isaac’s brigade was holding the line south of Gavrelle when the front line was overwhelmed and pushed back to Fampoux. Isaac was at rest behind the line on the 28th but his company was brought up to the north of Fampoux to help reinforce the new front line. Rosenberg was killed somewhere near the village of Fampoux. He died in close combat during a German counter attack.
Buried initially in a mass grave, his body could not be identified during operations in 1926 to concentrate Commonwealth graves in Bailleul Road East Cemetery, which is why his headstone bears the words, ‘Buried near this spot’. Whether here or in some unknown field, his remains lie where the ‘poppies whose roots are in men’s veins drop, and are ever dropping’ (‘Break of Day in the Trenches’).
Isaac Rosenberg’s grave
Rosenberg’s headstone is engraved with the badge of the King’s Own Royal Lancashire Regiment above the star of David, in accordance with his Hebrew faith. Beneath are engraved the words ‘Artist and Poet’.
In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell’s landmark study of the literature of the First World War, Fussell identifies Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the Trenches as ‘the greatest poem of the war’. Jon Stallworthy regards it as one of the great masterpieces of First World War poetry, harking back to the tradition of pastoral poetry whilst also subverting it and communicating a strong flavour of the soldiers’ everyday life in the trenches. The ‘queer sardonic rat’ offers its own critique of heroic, muscular values prevalent when the war began. The poem was written in early 1916, shortly after Rosenberg had arrived in France with the King’s Own Lancaster Regiment. It was included in a letter to a friend in London, described as ‘a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk’:
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.
Another poem written in 1916, though the title refers to the first month of the war, was ‘August 1914′, written while Rosenberg trained as a private soldier for the front line. It offers a stark contrast to all those poems that welcomed the war, such as Rubert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’:
What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?
Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.
Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.
‘In the Trenches’ was written in the autumn of 1916. Rosenberg described it in a letter to a friend as ‘a bit commonplace’. Carol Rumens, writing in the Guardian, regards it as unfinished: ‘one of those poems a poet in a hurry considers finished, only later to discover, it was actually draft’:
I snatched two poppies
From the parapet’s ledge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.
Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.
The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast …
Down – a shell – O! Christ,
I am choked … safe … dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed you lie.
However, there is unanimous agreement that ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ is Rosenberg’s masterpiece. Its powerful, almost cinematic imagery invokes a soldier going ‘wiring’ – setting up entanglements of barbed wire in No-Man’s Land. The wire is transported across the battlefield on a limber, or cart, pulled by a mule. It passes dying men and runs over the bodies of the unburied dead. In a letter to a friend, Rosenberg described the genesis of the poem: ‘Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather by carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I don’t think what I’ve written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it I’ll make it fine.’ It remains one of the most detailed, explicit and brutal accounts of the horror of the First World War:
The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
Earth has waited for them
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.
What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls’ sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?
None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.
What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘an end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie;
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.
Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.
Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight,
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.
‘Returning, We Hear Larks’ is one of the last poems that Isaac Rosenberg wrote, scribbled on scraps of paper in circumstances hardly conducive to poetic creativity. Carol Rumens, writing in the Guardian, described the poem as:
Neither impressionistic sketch nor realist narrative, though drawing on both, partly rhymed and partly free, haunted by an antithesis of innocence and experience almost too painful to translate into language, the poem seems to look into the heart of Romantic epiphany and find an abyss. Less than a year later, on 1 April 1918, Private Rosenberg was killed at dawn after a night patrol.
Jon Stallworthy observes that the poem is Rosenberg’s ‘most complex version of pastoral’, obliquely evoking Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’, whose ‘unbodied joy ,,, showers a rain of melody’:
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
“No one cares less than I,
Nobody knows but God,
Whether I am destined to lie
Under a foreign clod,”
It was only after driving round and round in circles that I found the place where Edward Thomas is buried. Agny military cemetery is situated in a busy suburb on the outskirts of Arras. I had set the sat-nav on my mobile phone, but every time the voice asserted that ‘you have arrived at your destination’ I could see nothing. On the third attempt, however, I noticed a small sign pointing down a cinder track that ran behind the gardens to the rear of some suburban houses. I had been looking for a more typical and substantial roadside cemetery, but Agny military cemetery is of a type that I later encountered several times on my trip: small, tucked away behind houses or farms, the world of today encroaching tightly on all sides.
The approach to Agny military cemetery
As I reached the trees at the end of the track that ran alongside back gardens where vegetables grew in profusion, the heavens opened and I took shelter, along with a group of French men who were mowing the grass around the graves. As we waited for the rain to pass we fell into conversation, and I explained in halting French that I was looking for the grave of an English poet. Without hesitation they directed me to the spot.
Mowing the lawns in Agny military cemetery
The cemetery comprises six rows of the usual identical white headstones, and – as with all cemeteries managed by the Commonwealth War Graves commission – it was immaculately kept. Red roses bloomed between the well tended graves, and the cemetery probably felt smaller than it actually is, being surrounded on all sides by large trees. There are, in fact, 413 headstones here, though less than half have any name upon them, many simply engraved with the words; ‘A Soldier of the Great War’.
The grave of Edward Thomas names him as ‘Second Lieutenant PE Thomas’ and states the date of death, 9 April 1917. He was aged 39, much older than many of his fellow-soldiers. Right at the bottom of the headstone, partly obscured by rose leaves was the simple engraved inscription, ‘POET’. I stood and thought of the roads that had led him to this place:
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living, but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,
Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.
P.E. Thomas: ‘poet’
Edward Thomas enlisted as a private in the Artists’ Rifles in July 1915, after a period of much soul-searching. He was sent to Hare Hall Camp at Romford in Essex, where he worked as a map-reading instructor and was promoted to lance-corporal, then full corporal. In November 1916, he volunteered for service overseas, and left England for France in January 1917. On 9 April he was killed by a shell blast in the first hour of the Battle of Arras, whilst directing fire from an observation post.
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
– ‘In Memoriam’ (Easter 1915)’
Unlike Wilfred Owen, who trained alongside Thomas at Hare Hall Camp, Edward Thomas’s poetry was all written before he embarked for the Front in January 1917, though almost none of it was published until after his death. His poetry, when it deals with the war (which is rarely) is concerned with the impact of the war on his mind rather than being a response to the experiences of battle. The deeply melancholic ‘Rain’ was written on 7 January 1916 in Hut 51 at Hare Hall Camp:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be for what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
A year earlier, in January 1915, he had written ‘A Private’, a memorial to those lost in the war in which he linked the familiar world of everyday rural life with the distant din of battle. It’s full of wry humour, portraying a drunken ploughman whose work rooted him to the soil of his village:
This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
“At Mrs Greenland’s Hawthorn Bush,” said he,
“I slept.” None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond `The Drover’, a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France -that, too, he secret keeps.
For a year before he joined up, Thomas had been undecided about his role in the conflict. He was uncomfortable with the jingoist exultation over the announcement of war. In December 1915 , in ‘‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’, he
asserted that he did not hate Germans, ‘nor grow hot/With love of Englishmen, to please
newspapers’. In a letter to Robert Frost he wrote about his differences with his father:
People get fined occasionally for speaking well of the Germans at private parties—under the Defence of the Realm Act. I don’t wonder. My father is so rampant in his cheery patriotism that I become pro German every evening.
But indecisiveness and self-doubt were a recurring element in Thomas’s melancholia. One element of that self-doubt was his conviction that he was a coward, a feeling reinforced by an incident when he and Robert Frost had encountered an aggressive gamekeeper. Thomas was convinced he had been a coward during the contretemps.
But he eventually made his decision, and – as Matthew Hollis recounts in Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, in the spring of 1917, at an exposed crossroads on the outskirts of Arras known as the ‘Windy Corner’, Thomas surveyed his most dangerous observation so far:
There stood one of the few factory chimneys that had not been destroyed by shelling: two hundred feet high, it promised a key vantage point from which to observe the German lines; but it was horribly vulnerable and had been hit three times already by small fire, loosening parts of the brickwork.
From reconnaissance, Thomas knew that iron rings inside the chimney served as a ladder, and that one of the rings was loose, but he did not know which one. Worse still, the funnel tapered, so that in climbing the inside of the chimney he would hang further out over the ground below with each rung he ascended. He tested the first rings and began to climb. A shell exploded close by and shook the chimney. Then another and another. Thomas’s nerve failed him. ‘It was impossible and I knew it,’ he explained to Frost. ‘As a matter of fact I had no light and no information about the method of getting up so that all the screwing up I had given myself would in any case have been futile. It was just another experience like the gamekeeper.’
The incident with the keeper haunted him until the very end.
The following day was calm: the first thrush appeared, and from the orchard that was his billet Thomas watched a ploughman take his team of horses up and down the misty field; each time they climbed the ridge they came into view of German artillery, but not a shot was fired. The night brought heavy bombardment. Thomas had barely slept for the pounding; when he did, he dreamed almost for the first time since leaving England. In his dream he was at home again, but as he told Helen in a letter, ‘I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea.’ It was a very feeble dream, he told her, but in his mind it clearly signified something more: ‘You must not convince yourself you are merely waiting, you know.’
The sight of the ploughman with his team of horses must surely have brought to Thomas’s mind the poem he had written at Hare Hall Camp two years earlier. ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ is perhaps the finest of his poems in which he reflects on the war:
As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
On Saturday April 7, Thomas wrote to Helen Thomas:
Here I am in my valise on the floor of my dugout writing before sleeping. The artillery is like a stormy tide breaking on the shores of the full moon that rides high and clear among white cirrus clouds . . . Hardly anything came near the O.P. or even the village. I simply watched the shells changing the landscape. The pretty village among trees that I first saw two weeks ago is now just ruins among violated stark tree trunks. But the sun shone and larks and partridge and magpies and hedge sparrows made love and the trench was being made passable for the wounded that will be harvested in a day or two. Either the Bosh is beaten or he is going to surprise us . . . One officer has to be at the O.P. every day and every other night. So it will be all work now till further notice – days of ten times the ordinary work too. So goodnight and I hope you sleep no worse than I do . . .
Sunday. I slept jolly well and now it is sunshine and wind and we are in for a long day and I must post this when I can.
All and always yours Edwy
Thomas spent the day before he died under particularly heavy bombardment. Matthew Hollis describes his lucky escape that day, one that was not to be repeated on the next day:
The shell that fell two yards from where he stood should have killed him but instead it was a rare dud. Back at billet, the men teased him on his lucky escape; someone remarked that a fellow with Thomas’s luck should be safe wherever be went. The next morning was the first of the Arras offensive. Easter Monday dawned cold and wintry. The infantry in the trenches fixed their bayonets and tightened their grip around their rifles; behind them, the artillery made their final preparations to the loading and the fusing of the shells. Thomas had started late to the Observation Post; he had not rung through his arrival when the bombardment began. The Allied assault was so immense that some Germans were captured half-dressed; others did not have time to put on their boots and fled barefoot through the mud and snow. British troops sang and danced in what only a few hours before bad been no-man’s-land. Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.
Thomas’s commanding officer wrote to Helen:
We buried him in a little military cemetery a few hundred yards from the battery, the exact spot will be notified to you by the parson. As we stood by his grave the sun came and the guns round seemed to stop firing for a short time.
On 25 May 1916, at Hare Hall Camp in Essex where members of the Artists’ Rifles undertook their training before heading off to fight in the trenches, Thomas wrote lines that were a conscious response to Brooke’s popular sonnet:
“No one cares less than I,
Nobody knows but God
Whether I am destined to lie
Under a foreign clod,”
Were the words I made to the bugle call in the morning.
But laughing, storming, scorning,
Only the bugles know
What the bugles say in the morning;
And they do not care when they blow
The call that I heard and made words to early this morning.
– ‘No One Cares Less Than I’, first published in the New Statesman, 1 June 1918
Wilfred Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, on the Sambre Canal which passes through Ors, a village in a wooded valley some twenty miles to the east of Peronne and the Somme river. Owen and his platoon had spent the previous night in the cellar of a Forester’s House in the wood outside Ors. Owen is pretty much unknown in France, but I had read that the villagers, noticing that a great number of British visitors came looking for Owen’s grave and the exact spot where he had been killed, and asking to visit the cellar of the Forester’s house, had decided to turn the Forester’s House into a monument to the poet, commissioning the British artist Simon Patterson to turn the building into a place for reflection and meditation.
La Maison Forestiere as it appeared before Simon Patterson’s intervention
The house, slate-roofed and of red brick with grey shutters, stands on a main road into the nearby town of Le Cateau-Camresis. Patterson decided to preserve the exterior of the house, but to remove the roof and gut the interior. The roof was replaced by a structure that appears normal when viewed from the road, but from other angles takes the form of an open book, with spine uppermost, the ‘pages’ constructed out of glass to admit maximum daylight into the interior.
Most dramatically, Patterson had the entire building rendered in brilliant white, giving it the appearance of a solid sculptural object, and making the house will stand out like ‘bleached bone’ (Patterson’s words) against the dark forest beyond. You are reminded, too, of the rows of white gravestones in a British war cemetery.
The brick-lined cellar where Owen and his platoon spent their last night remains untouched, but the interior of the house has been gutted, leaving an open white space, lit from above, and the walls clad with translucent glass onto which are etched drafts of Owen’s poems.
Simon Patterson’s newly-realised Forester’s House
Once I learned of this place I was keen to visit. But I was disappointed to discover that on the day that I would be at Ors, the Forester’s House would be closed. However, the tourist office website indicated that it was sometimes opened at other times for group visits. I emailed to ask whether a group would be visiting on the afternoon I passed by, and whether I could tag along. To my surprise, I received a reply offering to open the House just for me.
I arrived at the agreed time, and was met by a guide from the tourist office at Le Cateau-Cambresis who first of all took me down the steps into the cellar, which remains untouched and is accessed by a curved ramp, alongside which runs the text of Owen’s last letter home to his mother.
Owen’s last letter inscribed on the ramp to the cellar of La Maison Forestiere (photo: magicspello.wordpress.com)
Entering the cellar, you are struck by how crowded it must have been that night when 29 soldiers were holed up here, smoking like chimneys. As you begin to absorb the surrounding a recording begins of Kenneth Branagh reading Owen’s last letter to his mother. It is observant, amusing – and deeply moving.
Owen’s letter was designed to reassure his mother, saying nothing about the impending attack, but instead poking fun at his comrades (‘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’) and offering witty pen-portraits of the men (‘a band of friends’) crammed into the small space around him:
To Susan Owen
Thurs. 31 October  6:15 p.m.
[2nd Manchester Regt.]
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, & 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 Company Commander snores on a bench: other officers repose on wire beds behind me. At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Company 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
Owen’s last letter
From the cellar, my guide led me into the main house where you enter a large, empty space with no photographs or war memorabilia – just Owen’s handwritten draft of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ reproduced along the walls. The lighting is dimmed and the words of Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in the poet’s own handwriting is projected onto the facing wall as Kenneth Branagh reads the poem.
The interior of the Forester’s House (photo: Zoe Dawes, www.thequirkytraveller.com)
As a teenager, knocked out by the power of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, I would never have imagined that one day I would be here, in the place where Owen spent his last hours.
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.
The Sambre-Oise canal where Owen and his companions died
Shaking hands with my helpful guide, I left for the place where Owen and his companions met their fate, on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal just outside the village of Ors. The operation planned for 4 November 1918 seems almost suicidal. In order to cross the canal, the British soldiers had to install a floating bridge under fire from the German machine-guns positioned on the opposite bank.
At 05:45 on 4 November, Owen’s battalion went into action. Accompanying them were men of the Royal Engineers whose task was to assemble, on the canal bank, the sections of the prefabricated floating bridge. The operation had barely started before it was over. A few men managed to cross the canal, but the bridge was destroyed. Hopelessly exposed, a great number of the British soldiers fell under German machine-gun fire. Among them was Wilfred Owen. Futility?
He was twenty-five years old, had published four poems and had written a hundred other unpublished texts half of which had been produced between 1916 and 1918. Two days later, on 8 November, Owen was awarded the Military Cross for his exemplary conduct in an earlier action. On the same day, he was buried in the small square reserved for British military graves in Ors village cemetery. The war ended three days later, and in Shrewsbury, on 11 November, as the bells rang to celebrate the Armistice, Owens’ parents were handed the telegram that all parents feared receiving.
Wilfred Owen’s grave in Ors Communal Cemetery
From the canal, I went to the communal cemetery in the village of Ors, where Owen is buried, along with his companions who also died in the doomed action on the canal. While I stood there, the last line of another of Owen’s great poems came to mind: ‘Let us sleep now …’. ‘Strange Meeting’ was written in the spring or early summer of 1918. Siegfried Sassoon thought it Owen’s passport to immortality:
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 pains 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 of 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 have spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the 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 . . . .”
Ors Communal Cemetery
In The Ghost Road, Pat Barker’s novel which featured historical figures such as Owen and Siegrfried Sassoon, alongside fictional characters like Billy Prior, she vividly imagines the disaster at the canal bank:
Bridges laid down, quickly, efficiently, no bunching at the crossings, just the clump of boots on wood, and then they emerged from beneath the shelter of the trees and out into the terrifying openness of the bank. As bare as an eyeball, no cover anywhere, and the machine-gunners on the other side were alive and well. They dropped down, firing to cover the sappers as they struggled to assemble the bridge, but nothing covered them. Bullets fell like rain, puckering the surface of the canal, and the men started to fall. Prior saw the man next to him, a silent, surprised face, no sound, as he twirled and fell, a slash of scarlet like a huge flower bursting open on his chest. Crawling forward, he fired at the bank opposite though he could hardly see it for the clouds of smoke that drifted across. The sappers were still struggling with the bridge, binding pontoon sections together with wire that sparked in their hands as bullets struck it. And still the terrible rain fell. Only two sappers left, and then the Manchesters took over the building of the bridge. Kirk paddled out in a crate to give covering fire, was hit, hit again, this time in the face, went on firing directly at the machine-gunners who crouched in their defended holes only a few yards away. Prior was about to start across the water with ammunition when he was himself hit, though it didn’t feel like a bullet, more like a blow from something big and hard, a truncheon or a cricket bat, only it knocked him off his feet and he fell, one arm trailing over the edge of the canal.
He tried to turn to crawl back beyond the drainage ditches, knowing it was only a matter of time before he was hit again, but the gas was thick here and he couldn’t reach his mask. Banal, simple, repetitive thoughts ran round and round his mind. Balls up. Bloody mad. Oh Christ. There was no pain, more a spreading numbness that left his brain clear. He saw Kirk die. He saw Owen die, his body lifted off the ground by bullets, describing a slow arc in the air as it fell. It seemed to take for ever to fall, and Prior’s consciousness fluttered down with it. He gazed at his reflection in the water, which broke and reformed and broke again as bullets hit the surface and then, gradually, as the numbness spread, he ceased to see it.
On the edge of the canal the Manchesters lie, eyes still open, limbs not yet decently arranged, for the stretcher-bearers have departed with the last of the wounded, and the dead are left alone. The battle has withdrawn from them; the bridge they succeeded in building was destroyed by a single shell. Further down the canal another and more successful crossing is being attempted, but the cries and shouts come faintly here.
The sun has risen. The first shaft strikes the water and creeps towards them along the bank, discovering here the back of a hand, there the side of a neck, lending a rosy glow to skin from which the blood has fled, and then, finding nothing here that can respond to it, the shaft of light passes over them and begins to probe the distant fields.
Doomed youth: Wilfred Owen’s regiment
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.
In his new biography of Owen, published this year, Guy Cuthbertson offers this assessment of the poet:
Wilfred Owen remains contradictory: not quite a pacifist, he even hated ‘washy pacifists’; he wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ but he also wanted chivalry; he was the eternal boy who was a grown-up voice in an infantile war; he loved home but was eager to escape it; he was a Christian of a kind, who disliked the Church; conservative and radical, normal and abnormal; the snobbish supporter of the downtrodden; the poet of modernity who was in love with the past; the realist and romantic; he was an innovative and traditional writer who was devoted to poetry and wrote, in the preface to his poems, ‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry’; he longed for friendship and solitude; he fought gallantly, and urged his men to fight bravely, in a war he had been reluctant to join and then came to oppose bitterly. This is another part of why the man and his poems are so popular – he can appeal to everyone, and remains intriguing.
- Visions from the trenches: insightful article on Isaac Rosenberg by Jean Moorcroft Wilson (The Guardian, 2003)
- Edward Thomas: Now All Roads Lead to France
- Wilfred Owen 2014 Proms Plus Literary: poets Fred d’Aguiar and Michael Longley discuss the work of the poet whose poetry inspired Britten’s War Requiem
- Noel Chavasse: WW1 hero from Liverpool
- Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone