Ors is a perfectly ordinary looking little village in Nord-Pas de Calais, near the small town of Le Cateau-Cambresis. Driving north out of the village into the surrounding forest you come across a startling white structure, looking as much like a sculpture as a house. This is La Maison Forestière in Ors. Once the Forester’s House, it’s now the Wilfred Owen Memorial.
It was all up to the Mayor
For some time, the mayor of Ors, Jacky Duminy, had noticed the few curious visitors from the U.K. who were traveling through the region looking for various World War I memorials. Wilfred Owen’s grave is in Ors and there’s a small plaque from The Western Front Association in the village. It tells very briefly about the death of Wilfred Owen at a skirmish where 4 Victoria Crosses were won, and a Military Cross was awarded to Wilfred Owen. Intrigued by the story, Jacky Duminy began to research Wilfred Owen’s poetry. He fell under its spell and decided it was time for a proper memorial.
Not an easy task
It was a huge work to persuade the villagers and the various funding bodies to finance the project. He had help from the Wilfred Owen Association in the U.K. and members of the family but little other help from the British, apart from the British Library and the British actor Kenneth Branagh when the project was well under way.
The plan was to take the Maison Forestière and turn it into a memorial. An English artist, Simon Patterson, was commissioned to do the original design, with the help of the French architect Jean-Christophe Denise. The result is spectacular and spectacularly simple as well. The all white house appears like a ‘bleached bone’ as Simon Patterson described it.
Wilfred Owen as a soldier in World War I
Wilfred Owen joined the 2nd Manchester Regiment in October 2015. He fought and was badly wounded. Suffering from neurasthenia (shell shock) he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to be treated. Here the young soldier-poet met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon whose influence on Owen’s style was significant. The meeting and the relationship is described in Pat Barker‘s historical novel Regeneration (1991) which I thoroughly recommend reading.
How Wilfred Owen died
Owen returned to France in July 2018 to fight on the front line. On November 3rd, 1918 he was holed up with 20 of his fellow soldiers in the Forester’s House in the dark, damp cellar. He wrote to his mother describing the conditions, which were smoky and crowded with ‘a wheeze of jokes’ from the men.
“I shall call this place from which I am now writing “The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House.” He reassured her: “There is no danger here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.”
The next morning he and his fellow soldiers made their way to the Sambre Canal in the village. Trying to cross the canal they came under murderous fire and Owen was killed, seven days before Armistice Day that ended the ‘war to end all wars’. His mother received the letter from her son and the telegram about her son’s death on November 11th, Armistice Day.
He is buried in the local churchyard along with other members of the regiment.
Visiting the Wilfred Owen Memorial
You walk up a ramp into a large space, lit from above. Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est is etched on the walls which are clad with a translucent skin of glass. It’s taken from Owen’s hand written manuscript which is now in the British Library. As you stand there, the lights dim and you hear Kenneth Branagh reading some of Owen’s poems. He recorded them for the 100th anniversary of Owen’s birth for Radio 4 in 1993. The poems appear on the walls over the glass, first in English then in French. In between there is silence. It lasts one hour; you can leave at any time or hear all of them.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Wilfred Owen’s poetry evokes the true horrors of trench warfare. It’s particularly emotive in his most famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est which is predominantly about the gas that terrified and killed so many soldiers. The Latin ending of the poem reads as: ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’. What an indictment of the leadership of World War I.
“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,
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.
It’s a powerful memorial. Unlike other museums around war, there are no artefacts, no tanks, no bombs, no arms. Just a room, a poetry reading, and a cellar.
Wilfred Owen’s last night
There is a little more to see. You leave the room and walk down a ramp where parts of Owen’s letter are inscribed on the walls. It leads you into the damp, dark cellar where Owen spent his last night. Very little has been done to the cellar, but as you walk in, you hear the voice of Kenneth Branagh reading out Owen’s letter.
This impressive memorial is made all the more effective by being so simple. It is meant to be ‘a quiet place that is suitable for reflection and the contemplation of poetry.’ I found it to be a lot more than that, prompting reflections on the futility of war and the waste of life. But this chapel-like memorial also celebrates the art that can come out of chaos and tragedy.
Wilfred Owen as War Poet
Wilfred Owen was one of Britain’s greatest war poets, a writer who evoked the horrors of World War I, which he described as a ‘barbaric absurdity’. Trench warfare and the horrors of gas were powerful themes.
Most of his poems were published in 1920, including the best known ones: Anthem for Doomed Youth, Futility, Dulce et Decorum Est, The Parable of the Old Men and The Young and Strange Meeting.
Wilfred Owen Memorial
Tel: +33 (0)3 27 78 36 15 (Le Cateau Cambresis Tourist Office
Location By car from Cambrai. Take the D643 east out of Cambrai to Le Cateau-Cambresis. After Le Cateau continue on the D643 until you reach a small road, the D3604 signposted to Ors.
More to see on Wilfred Owen
Take the 7km (4.3 mile) walk into the forest of Bois L’Evêque. It’s a 2-hour walk taking you around the various sites associated with Wilfred Owen, and it follows the route he and his men took to the canal. Pick up the leaflet and map at the tourist office in Le Cateau-Cambrésis.
Wilfred Owen is buried in the Ors Communal Cemetery in the special section devoted to the British soldiers killed here. It’s maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The CWGC has now opened a new visitor centre which is well worth a visit. You go behind the scenes to see exactly how they look after the 1.7 million graves around the world.
Opposite the house, the Estaminet de l’Hermitage makes a great lunch or dinner spot.
Lieu dit le bois l’Evêque
Tel: +33 (0)3 27 77 99 48