The misery and insanity of war can seem like an inaccessible, nebulous thunder cloud of black statistics that is commemorated once a year on Remembrance Day and then slips again from consciousness. However, when you focus on one specific reckless battle and the poignancy of the personal perspective of a sensitive young soldier from Shropshire, that impersonal link with the suffering of those in war is broken.
Wilfred Owen, just 25, felt safe and secure holed up with other officers of the Second Manchesters Regiment in the smoky, rowdy cellar of a cottage in the tranquil French village of Ors when he scrawled an eloquent letter to his fretful mother, dated October 31, 1918.
Usually maudlin, this cheerful letter was full of joy and comfort as the horror of war was coming to end and the men were dreaming of home.
Owen writes: “It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas yourself, dearest Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and 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 … you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”
But four days later the gifted young poet and forty other youthful English soldiers were dead, tragically, needlessly, just a week before the Allies’ Victory on Armistice on November 11.
Soldiers must obey dumb decisions by commanding officers. When ordered to construct a floating bridge and cross the Sambre-Oise Canal, the soldiers were hopelessly exposed to the German units entrenched on the opposite bank at La Motte Farm, who opened fire with machine guns. Amongst the fatal causalities was Wilfred Owen.
Here we are, almost one hundred years later, a group of seven curious British travellers, dangling mobile phones, cameras and gadgets, standing mesmerised and teary, in that same cellar listening to the resonant voice of acclaimed actor Kenneth Branagh reading Owen’s last letter. His innocent words land like bricks on the heart.
We are transported back a century and emotions are raw. Our minds are racing with images of terrifying battle scenes and courageous young men living their last moments with gusto, before sacrificing their futures for unborn generations. That’s us; the grateful living.
The jolly little rural cottage was red brick with jaunty window shutters when Owen sheltered in the smoky cellar but these days the memorial is stark white with a dramatic curved ramp leading to a modern museum with illuminated clear walls adorned with the hand written lines of Owen’s evocative war poetry. And there’s that aching audio again turning eyes wet with tears.
Our little tour group of whimsical writers led by Sara from PR agency, four bgb and Ellie our host crossed the English Channel to Calais in style and comfort on Friday afternoon and drove in two cars to the Hotel d’ Angleterre in Arras, a charming, resilient city lovingly rebuilt after being severely bombed in both wars.
My spacious, elegant suite with a giant, comfortable bed ensured I woke up fresh and eager to walk in the footsteps of Wilfred Owen, one of the Remembrance Trails of Northern France, created for the Centenary of the start of the First World War in 1914.
After our emotional experience in the La Maison Forestiere, the kindly Mayor of Ors, Jacques Duminy, devoted to promoting the unique memorial, accompanies us on the seven-kilometre hike through pretty woodlands to take in the languid canal where the tragic battle was fought.
We stroll through the village where the soldiers, including Scotsmen in kilts, Aussies in slouch hats and Indians in turbans, fraternised with locals. We visit the simple graveyard where over a hundred Allied soldiers are buried and the local cemetery where Owen’s modest headstone is one of many.
The easy trails weave through idyllic woodlands of skinny trees knee-deep in carpets of bluebells; their branches shimmering with delicate new leaves in crisp air filled with birdsong. In this peaceful sanctuary, we contemplate the aberration of war’s chaos and destruction. The Wilfred Owen walk has transformed us all into poets!
With a stinging blister on my toe and rumbling tummy, I hobble off to join our group for a hearty lunch of traditional dishes in the rustic cafe, l’Estaminet de l’Hermitage in Ors.
And then we change gears into art connoisseurs to visit Louvre-Lens museum, a modern regional art gallery with an astonishing collection of antiquities, a regional annex of Paris’ famous Louvre.
A fascinating day is capped off with a superb, delectable dinner and much lively discussion and laughter at La Faisanderie, a Baroque-style restaurant set in a brick-walled cellar in elegant Arras.
If immersion in the pathos of Wilfred Owen was a profound experience, I am completely taken by surprise on Sunday morning. Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional impact of what came next!
At the Wellington Quarry we slap on audio headsets and safety helmets and, led by our knowledgeable guide Francois, descend 20 meters to a secret underground city.
In the winter of 1916, work gangs of 500 determined and courageous New Zealand Tunnellers, using only picks powered by muscle, sweat and hard labour, dug out 12 miles of tunnels over six months. These tunnels, cut through chalky stone, are not tiny rabbit warrens but cavernous corridors and rooms that housed 24,000 Allied soldiers from all over the world for eight days before the most surprising attack of the First World War.
At Exit 10, the Tommies, multitudes of brave young men suppressing their terror, emerged from this secret underground base to burst into No Man’s Land a few meters from the German camps in the morning of April 9, 1917 to fight and win the famous Battle of Arras; a mass slaughter. Over two gory months, 4000 men lost their lives every day. The hard-won victory stopped the German troops advancing into France.
Visitors are enthralled to watch black and white films of life underground and hear the accented voices of soldiers as they bantered, trying to preserve humour and optimism, normality and dignity, living off canned ‘monkey meat’, smoking pipes, playing cards, taking turns at icy showers and shaving their whiskers, lining up for stinking latrines and sleeping huddled with army rugs in timber bunks set into freezing stone walls.
With our imaginations in over-drive visualising this heroic super human mission, my fellow travellers and I are gob smacked and intrigued by Francois’ vivid descriptions as we weave through the eerie, illuminated labyrinth. The sombre mood is lightened by colourful displays of provisions, graffiti and funny drawings and the nostalgic mixture of Kiwi and English place names the tunnellers and soldiers gave the myriad chambers to conjure the comforts of home.
Feeling emotionally and mentally drained, I’m not sure if I can take much more of this historic heartache. But there’s more. We meet up with two charming young women from the Tourism Office Notre Dame de Lorette Church at Artois.
The impressive memorial commemorates the Battle of Lorette that lasted 12 months and claimed 100,000 victims. The imposing Lantern Tower, erected in 1921, is 150 feet high and at night it’s beacon-light revolves five time every minute across the surrounding countryside.
The Chapel is a massive, stark building from the outside but inside the Romanesque and Byzantine decor is awe-inspring; full of grace and beauty, with immense mosaic images and vivid stained glass windows.
Surrounding the two impressive buildings, the French National War Cemetery contains the bones of over 40,000 soldiers, marked by dramatic rows of white crosses.
Luckily a delicious lunch at the convivial, rustic Estaminet de Lorette provides respite from the daunting vision of graveyards. My blueberry tart is heavenly!
By mid afternoon the weather is turning bleak with a cold blanket of grey haze and drizzle providing the perfect atmosphere to visit Vimy Ridge to experience life in the trenches during the bitter winter of 1917 where all four Canadian divisions, fighting together for the first time, stormed the seven kilometre long Ridge, a strategic German stronghold.
The victory came at the enormous cost of over 10,000 casualties including 3,598 Canadians, whom are remembered amongst the 66,000 Canadians who died in the First World War at the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada. The astonishing Monument of twin white pylons is carved with thousands of names of brave soldiers.
Our weekend tour packed in so much and opened my eyes and heart to my grandfather’s courageous generation who sacrificed their lives for freedom.
Wearily we pile in our cars and drive to Calais port for the pleasant return trip across the Channel, chatting about our impressions and insights and somehow feeling older and wiser.
I recommend the World War tours in Northern France to humans of all ages in the hope that enough empathy and compassion for the brave victims of war and the loss and grief suffered by millions of parents, siblings, sweethearts, wives and children will lead to a passionate commitment to a love of humanity and peaceful co-existence.
Information about this trip
DFDS operates up to 24 daily crossings to France from Dover to Dunkirk and Calais. Fares for a car and up to nine passengers start from just £32 each way online when booked before 31 March 2017. Travel is then valid until 13 Decemeber 2017, so you have plenty of time to plan your trip.
Nord-Pas de Calais Tourist Board
For more information on the Nord-Pas de Calais, visit northernfrance-tourism.com
Wilfred Owen / Maison Forestière in Ors
Maison Forestière in Ors is closed through the winter months – the museum opens 15 April 2017. Entry to the house is free of charge. Open Wednesday to Friday 2pm-6pm, Saturday from 10am-1pm, and 2-6pm. Also open the first Sunday of every month from 2-6pm. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
For more information on the Maison Forestière in Ors, and to download the Wilfred Owen trail, visit tourisme-cambresis.fr/following-owen
Entry to the Galerie du Temps is free. The venue is open every day except Tuesday. Other exhibitions may be payable louvrelens.fr
Vimy Ridge and Notre Dame de Lorette Necropolis
Entry to all sites are free of charge, and Canadian volunteers will act as a guide to Vimy Ridge free of charge. For information on these and other war sites in the Nord-Pas de Calais area, visit remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com. Another good site is www.arras1418.com
War history enthusiasts and techie people will be thrilled with the new Diaries 14-18 app (zevisit.com/application/war1418/diaries1418.html)
We stayed at the Hotel d’Angleterre. A double room starts from €110 per night on a bed and breakfast basis.
On the Saturday night, we ate at La Faisanderie in Arras.
Estaminet de Lorette
On Sunday lunchtime, we ate at the Estaminet de Lorette.
Diane Priestley is a regular contributor to 50connect, you can read more about her trips on our Travel channel.Photo of Wilfred Owen grave Hektor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Maison Forestière Wilfred Owen at Ors ©OT Cambrésis. Last modified: November 10, 2021