Approaching via the surrounding forest from the little village of Ors in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, you suddenly come across a startling white structure, looking as much like a sculpture as a house. This is La Maison Forestiere in Ors, once the Forester’s House and part of an Army camp, now the memorial to the poet Wilfred Owen.
The soldier 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’. He fought with the Manchester Regiment and was holed up with them on the night of November 3th, 1918 in the cellar of the Forester's House. 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 and the end of the ‘war to end all wars’.
Owen was buried in the local churchyard along with other members of the regiment, attracting over the years a few curious visitors from the U.K., who came to see the various World War I memorials. The mayor of Ors, Jacky Duminy, noticed the Brits who came to see Ors and did some research on the poet and his poetry. A plaque to the poet and to the regiment had been put up in the village, but he decided this was not enough and began to plan a memorial.
It was a huge work to persuade the villagers and the various funding bodies to support and finance the project. He had help from the Wilfred Owen Society in the U.K. and members of the family but apart from the British Library and Kenneth Branagh, surprisingly received little other support from the British. An English artist, Simon Patterson, was commissioned to do the original design, and a French architect, Jean-Christophe Denise, was appointed on the construction.
The result is spectacular and spectacularly simple as well. The all-white house appears like a ‘bleached bone’ as Simon Patterson described it. You walk up a ramp into a large space, lit from above. Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est is etched on a translucent skin of glass which covers the four walls. It is in Owen's handwriting, taken from his manuscript which is now in the British Library. As you stand there, the lights dim and you hear the voice of Kenneth Branagh reading 12 of Owen’s poems, which he recorded for Radio 4 in 1993 to commemorate Owen’s birth in 1893. The poems appear on the walls, and you hear some of them in French. In between there is silence. It lasts one hour; you can leave at any time or hear all of the poems which include Strange Meeting and Dulce et Decorum Est.It’s a powerful place. Unlike other museums centered around war, there are no artefacts, no tanks, no bombs, no arms. Just one room and a poetry reading.
However there is a little more to see. You leave the room and walk down a ramp into the damp, dark, tiny cellar where Owen and 29 others spent the night of November 3rd. Owen wrote a letter to his mother describing the conditions, which were smoky and crowded with ‘a wheeze of jokes’ coming from the men. The next day he was killed; his mother received his letter on November 11th, the day that peace was declared. 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.
It’s an impressive memorial, made all the more effective by being so simple. The creators hope it will be seen as ‘a quiet place that is suitable for reflection and the contemplation of poetry.’ It is just that, invoking thoughts on the futility of war and the waste of life. But this chapel-like memorial also glorifies the art that can come out of chaos and tragedy.
After the visit, walk across the road to the Estaminet de l'Ermitage (lieu-dit Le Bois l'Evèque, tel.: 00 33 (03 27 77 99 48). You'll get a good and inexpensive lunch of local specialities like carbonnade flamande or pie made with the local Maroilles cheese (weekday menus are 12 euros; Sunday lunch is 24 euros).
Practical InformationWilfred Owen Memorial
Open daily (except Tuesdays) 2pm-4pm (with daily longer hours during the summer)
Directions:By car from Cambrai. As you climb the hill from Le Cateau, on the D643, take the first road on the left, the D959. The memorial is found on the right hand side of the road, by the Camp Militaire.
For more information on Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, go to the Nord website.