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Commemorating The Centenary of Wilfred Owen's Death - 5 years on

It's no secret that my favourite poet is Wilfred Owen. November 4th marks 105 years since his untimely death in 1918. I always think of him at this time. I feel a deep connection to Wilfred, on many different levels. I may revisit these in a future post. As for this one, I'm going to take you back to the events of five years ago, when I travelled to Ors in France to mark the centenary of Wilfred Owen's death.


Wilfred Owen was born in Oswestry in England, in 1893 and died in Ors, in France in the final week of the First World War. Apparently, his poor mother Susan Owen received the telegram informing her of his death, just as the bells rang out announcing the end of the First World War.


I won't go into too much detail about Wilfred himself, or his poetry as there is plenty of information on the Wilfred Owen Association website and in past posts on my blogger site (please see the links at the bottom of this post). His poem 'Mental Cases', which tackles the topic of shell shock and the psychological consequences of war, is my favourite of all his poems. It describes in graphic detail the external appearance and internal trauma of soldiers with what we now know as PTSD.


Five years ago, on the centenary of Wilfred's death, I made a pilgrimage to Ors (my second visit), to mark the anniversary. A wonderful commemoration was put together by The Wilfred Owen Association.


THE FORESTER'S HOUSE


Thoren Ferguson plays the Wilfred Owen violin outside the Forester's House 04/11/2018


To begin with, we met at the Forester's House just outside Ors, which has been painted white all over, and inside is a sound and light experience, with images of Wilfred's handwritten manuscripts and photos of him on display on the walls and projected on top of those images, with his poems being read out loud. It is an astonishing monument to Wilfred Owen and I could have sat there absorbing his words for hours.


The cellar where Wilfred spent his final night has been preserved as it was, with a curved entrance added, which bears the words of the final letter he sent to his mother - a letter which ended: ever, Wilfred x .


A large group of us assembled outside the Forester's house at 4:30am on the 4th November 2018, and we all stood in the darkness, as the house, lit up brilliant white, shone in the darkness. Fiddle player Thoren Ferguson played a piece of music on the Wilfred Owen Violin as he emerged from the cellar.


TRACING WILFRED OWEN'S STEPS


Clearing the woods and reaching the town of Ors 04/11/2018


After that, we left the Forester's House at the same time of day as Wilfred had left it, 100 years earlier. We traced his steps through the woods, until we reached the centre of Ors, where we stopped at a cemetery that is close to the Sambre Oise Canal, where he was gunned down, while putting down gang planks, as the sun rose on November 4th 1918.


THE SAMBRE OISE CANAL


Still waters on the Sambre Oise Canal 04/11/2018


When we reached the canal itself, the sun was just rising and the sky was a rainbow of pastel colours, intersected with skeletal trees. The water on the canal was completely still, reflecting the wintry scene in perfect detail. It was eerie to feel the peace and complete silence in a location, which had been a scene of such chaos and death one hundred years earlier. Members of The Wilfred Owen Association and the French Association Wilfred Owen assembled by the canal, and held a ceremony in Wilfred's memory. It was a beautiful and moving moment, and a wonderful one to witness.


WILFRED OWEN'S GRAVE


Ors Communal Cemetery 04/11/2018


Later that morning, I headed to Ors Communal cemetery where Wilfred is buried. The grass was frosty and there were multiple footprints in the frost leading to Wilfred's grave, and many crosses and messages left for him. People had placed coins on his gravestone too.


Paying my respects at Wilfred Owen's Grave 04/11/2018


I wrote a poem about that day, which was published alongside some of my photographs from the day, in the Wilfred Owen Association Journal in 2020. I felt really honoured to have been included in a publication, which is created by and for those who appreciate Wilfred the most. Since then, I have written a song inspired by the events of that day, which I am currently working on with my brilliant musician friends Richie Power and Kay Wolf.


Ever Wilfred x

By Annie Bell


On making a pilgrimage, with the Wilfred Owen Association, to the Sambre-Oise canal: the site of Wilfred Owen's demise, on the centenary of his death: 4th November 2018.


I traced your steps in the dark,

early that frosty morning.

One hundred years had passed

since, blissful, unaware of the

horrors that lay ahead,

you lived your final awakening.

I crossed the sea to be there,

drawn by your words:

by your story.


The Forester's House, now painted white,

lit up, contrasting with the pre-dawn sky.

There, you dreamt your last dream,

holding a letter to your heart.

Your fate was sealed,

as final grains of sand

flowed through your hourglass,

to their final resting place.

I stood by that house

and I waited.


A fiddler played your elegy:

a melody echoing into my heart,

each mournful note

drifting,

haunting.


I walked the path that you had marched,

passing through the woods,

slipping through mud and frost.

I traced your footsteps in the darkness,

hoping to feel you, in the air.

I listened hard but you weren't there.


I cleared the woods, and reached the town.

Early dawn skies glowed blue and pink.

Silhouetted trees stood guard

over moonlit houses.

I reached the canal,

where you breathed your last.

Serenity reigned, where mechanical Death

had wreaked such misery.

It was eerie: a tragic mockery

or

was Nature honouring you, too?

Pastel clouds,

frosty skies,

skeletal trees

reflected in still water.


I pondered how your flame blew out,

before its time.

I imagined the achievements

denied you:

denied us.

I shed a silent tear,

hoping to feel you in the air.

I listened hard but you weren't there.


At last, I stood where you are at rest,

flanked by the graves of your peers

and I, flanked by your followers.

I blinked in the low-slung winter sun.

Footprints in frost-encrusted grass

led only to you.


I hoped to feel you in the air.

I listened hard and sensed you there,

in the corner,

by the hedge,

smiling.

One hundred years on,

you watched your pilgrims walking past

and I felt you

believing.


In the video below you can see me reading my poem, and the music in the background is a recording of Thoren Ferguson, playing the Wilfred Owen violin on the day.



Throughout that morning, I had hoped to feel something of Wilfred's presence in the air around me. I felt nothing, until I stood alone by his graveside, after the morning's commemorations were over, and I felt the warmth of his presence. I imagined him standing in the corner of the cemetery, perhaps with his friend Siegfried Sassoon, smiling, at the love and respect his poetry still receives one hundred years on (and beyond).


Wilfred Owen's grave 04/11/2018


Links to past posts about Wilfred Owen on my blogger site.



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