We sent our writer Scott on a poignant trip to Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The now peaceful French towns of Arras and Or were the site of battlefields where thousands of men were killed during World War 1, including the famous war poet Wilfred Owen…
As we walked around and listened to the guides, the true tragedy what had happened gradually started to sink in. The number of casualties during WW1 is believed to be around 37 million (with over 16 million deaths) and if you had passed through this particular corner of France towards the end of 1918, nothing would have remained, not a single house, church or even a tree.
Some of the bloodiest battles of World War I were fought in this region and today the area is an important site for ‘remembrance tourism’ with many cemeteries and memorials scattered throughout the region reminding visitors of the War’s true cost. One man who died was the young Wilfred Owen, one of the world’s most famous war poets, who was senselessly shot dead aged just 25 during the very last week of war.
Our first stop was Ors at ‘La Maison Forestiere’, a small white house which looks like a sculpture from the outside but we learnt it was also where Wilfred Owen spent his last night. Local councillors wanted to put an artistic and literary project in place that would commemorate Owen and today it’s both an artistic memorial and a free museum. We climbed down the circular ramp which leads down to the cramped cellar (where Wilfred Owen and 20 fellow soldiers once sheltered) and we fell silent as we read the words inscribed on the stark, white wall.
There was a letter written to his mother, which was full of optimism about returning home but we learnt tragically he died before she received it. His most famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, is also beautifully inscribed in his own handwriting. The title literally means ‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country’ but in the final stanza of the poem, Owen bitterly refers to this as ‘The old lie’.
We then followed Owen final footsteps along the seven kilometre trail through the woods to the Sambre Canal – the spot where he was killed just seven days before Armistice Day and then onto the town’s cemetery where the fallen poet was buried.
The following day we visited Notre Dame de Lorette, which is also known as the Ablain St.-Nazaire French Military Cemetery. Whilst Owen was laid to rest in with just a small number of other soldiers in the local cemetery, here row upon row of simple white crosses of more than 40,000 of Christian, Jewish and Muslim graves all lie side by side.
The graveyard is close to Vimy Ridge, the spot where part of the Battle of Arras was fought in April 1917. We learnt how Canadian troops fiercely fought the Germans after the Allies were unable to assist with backup. Due to the soldier’s brave effort, the land has been turned into a Memorial Park where people can pay their respect and visit the trenches. It is not until you visit the centre and see No Man’s Land that you realise that the soldiers were less than five metres from each other when they were fighting.
Our trip to Nord-Pas-de-Calais was a very interesting, moving and at times a difficult trip, but this year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War Northern France and a century on, I couldn’t think of any better way to pay my respects to the soldiers who fought so bravely.
All words and images by regular contributor Scott Balaam.