About a Hero
Most secondary school pupils are aware of war poet, Wilfred Owen. Indeed, a casual observer might believe that the ability to ‘teach’ his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ is a teacher training requirement, and the ability to write about it is what gets you a pass in Standard Grade English.
He famously wrote that ‘The Poetry is in the Pity’, but I sometimes wonder if the real pity is that he wrote about the horrors of war but ended up being 21st Century exam fodder.
This is, of course, a bleak view and not, I think, accurate. Certainly there will be pupils who regurgitate notes on his poetry without much thought to their provenance but I believe many more will be affected more deeply by exposure to the writings of a young man who never reached his 26th birthday.
Although I was introduced to his work 50 years after his death, I can still remember the effect of his poems in my 6th year class one Thursday afternoon in 1968. For whatever reason, his style of writing, not, at that stage, his subject matter, opened up the whole idea of poetry for me. Immune to Keats and Shelley and rather baffled by Wordsworth, as a school pupil, when I read Owen’s poems, I ‘got it’. Understanding the poetry increased my love of literature, which led to an English degree and a career in teaching. So Owen certainly impacted on my life.
Apart from his poetry, he was probably the first poet whose work I enjoyed and who had a ‘reality’ for me. His education was in Birkenhead, only a few miles from my own school, at the Institute – a school I had visited for sports fixtures; he had stayed for a couple of months, when in command of a gunnery range, in Southport, where I lived at the time; and, fascinatingly, his poetry had flourished, in the company of fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, when he stayed at Craiglockhart War Hospital in my hometown of Edinburgh. Later I had friends who attended Craiglockhart when it became a Teacher Training College, and I took school classes there when I became a teacher. My son has postgraduate lectures there now in its latest guise as part of Napier University.
But I suppose it’s the opening up of poetry and the power of words for me that makes me feel most indebted to Owen. His work has also encouraged in me a long and deep interest in the Great War, in which my grandfather and uncle both fought.That probably explains why I have visited the tiny village of Ors in the Nord region of France on a couple of occasions.
In many ways it’s an unremarkable place, between Landrecies and Le Cateau. It is almost surrounded by dark, fenced woodland – the site of a French Military installation, and the village centre is not much more than a large church, the Mairie and a boulangerie. Five minutes further on is a canal lock station and its bridge over the Sambre Oise canal.
A hundred yards or so from the bridge, the canal goes into a long gentle curve. On the far side is an undistinguished farm house; on the near side the narrow towpath gives on to a deep water filled ditch and then some low lying boggy fields. It was here at the canalside, shortly after dawn on November 4th 1918, while encouraging his men to built makeshift rafts in the face of withering machine gun fire from the other side of the water, not 30 feet away, that Owen was hit and killed. Standing on the spot, it is more or less impossible to even imagine the kind of courage needed to operate in those conditions, where the machine gunners would have been almost close enough to touch. The far canal bank seems hardly as long as a cricket pitch or the width of a penalty area. The morning Owen was killed, many lost their lives, and the dank and foggy atmosphere of that dawn always seems to hang about this part of the canal.
Ors has two cemeteries – a British CWG site, not surprising in a part of France that was fought over – in every way – so many times, and the village’s communal graveyard. The communal burial site is up narrow road and has the familiar French design of a front wall and railings and many ‘above ground’ tombs, with small statues and other tributes on them. Really you need to go up the few steps and through the gate before you become aware that in the far corner of the cemetery, surrounded by a low neat hedge, and covered by that familiar, impeccable grass sward, are three rows of white headstones, around 60 graves in all. In the far corner, three along from the end of the back row, is the inscription to Lt W.E.S Owen MC. It’s an understated position for a diffident man, but like his poetry, nonetheless affecting and thought provoking. It’s not hard to see the graves in this corner of the village cemetery as looking out for the graves of the local people buried around them, just as they fought to liberate them all those years ago. Ahead of you, across a scrubby field, is the village, and, as you turn away from the graves, noting not one, but two VC winners, from the same day’s fighting, between the crosses and statues of the village’s deceased, you spot the unmistakable outline of a village station, and the station master’s house. The railway runs so near to Owen’s final resting place, a familiar, comforting setting for this son of a station master.
I’m sure I’ll go back again to Ors, to lay my hand on that white stone and say a silent thank you to Sassoon’s ‘funny little Welshman’ who, in writing out of concern for the men he saw suffer around him, affected more people than he could have possibly foretold.
He started the war wanting to be Keats, but by the time he died, 92 years ago today, he had found someone just as impressive: Wilfred Owen.