Wilfred Owen trail
More background info:
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born in 1893 in England. He discovered his poetic leanings already aged 11, but it would take war, and certain influences, to bring out his later so celebrated personal style. When WW1
broke out he was abroad in Bordeaux, France
, working as a language tutor. It was only in 1915 that he decided to enlist in the British Army. He thus returned to England and signed up in October 1915.
After a several months’ military training he was sent to The Somme
. He saw active service from January to April 1917. Injured and shell-shocked he was sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. While recuperating there he got to know his literary hero Siegfried Sassoon, who was already an acclaimed author and war poet. Sassoon befriended and mentored Owen. (Whether their relationship went beyond the non-physical is a matter of speculation; both had homoerotic leanings but there’s nothing to suggest that they actually enacted any of this together.)
It was in the period between August 1917 and September 1918 that Wilfred Owen penned the bulk of his poetry in one long creative outburst, including his best-known works such as “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, “Futility”, and “Dulce et Decorum est”. His style of dark realism contrasted sharply with the then more usual glorifications of patriotism and heroism.
Against Sassoon’s express advice, Owen returned to the war in the summer of 1918 and eventually took part in the Allied Hundred Day Offensive (cf. Ypres
) in which he distinguished himself during the breaking through of the Hindenburg Line at the town of Joncourt on 1 October, for which he was awarded a military decoration.
A month later he and some fellow officers took shelter in a Forester’s House north of Ors. It was here that he wrote his final letter home to his mother – opening line: “My dearest mother, I shall call this place from which I am now writing ‘The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House ...”
On 4 November his regiment attempted to cross the Sambre–Oise Canal at Ors by means of assembling a floating bridge. On the opposite bank, however, were still some German machine gunners, and given the lack of cover Owen and his men had they were easy targets and many were killed, including Owen. He was only 25 years old.
As if to add insult to injury, his mother received the notification of her son’s death on 11 November just as all the church bells were pealing to celebrate Armistice Day. Wilfred Owen tragically missed that day of peace by just one single week.
Only a small handful of Owen’s poems were published during his short lifetime (including the ones listed above). His poetry at large came to prominence only after the war, first by a collection published in 1920, then another in 1931. A complete edition of all his poems and fragments wasn’t published until 1994. Today he is one of the most celebrated English-language poets of all time. Several of his poems were used in Benjamin Britten’s composition “War Requiem” that was commissioned for the consecration ceremony of the new Coventry Cathedral
and was premiered there as part of that ceremony.
There are many places associated with Wilfred Owen’s life (see below
), both in France
and in Britain
, but Ors, the place where he tragically was killed only days before the end of the war he so critically had written poetry about, stands out, of course. In addition to his grave, there’s a commemorative plaque put up in 1991, a hiking trail “In the footsteps of Wilfred Owen” was set up and the Forester’s House, where Owen had written his final letter to his mother and where he spent his last night, was turned into an artistic memorial.
In fact, the Forester’s House was quite radically redesigned by British visual artist Simon Patterson and French architect Jean-Christophe Denise; it opened in 2011 as the latest commodification
of Owen’s connection to Ors – see below
What there is to see:
The premier point of interest for most people reading this will most likely be the grave of Wilfred Owen
itself. This is found in the small communal cemetery
to the north of Ors
by the railway line NB: he’s not
in the larger British military cemetery (see below
) to the north-east of Ors! This communal cemetery is a regular civilian cemetery with just a small Commonwealth war graves section next to it. It has a Cross of Sacrifice (cf. Tyne Cot
) and three rows of graves. Wilfred Owen’s is in the back row, third from the left (east).
It’s marked by a regular typical Commonwealth war graves tombstone, which are always of uniform size and shape. It is inscribed with his rank, initials and name, regiment and death date. At the bottom is a quote from one of his poems.
It is not uncommon to find wreaths and/or little crosses left as mementoes at his headstone (that makes me almost feel a bit sorry for all the neighbouring graves that receive much less attention). When I was there a typical wreath of plastic red poppies was leaning against the back of the stone, with a quote from Owen’s famous poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” in the centre.
The other main point of interest here is the Forester’s House
(“Maison Forestière” in French) in the Bois-l'Évêque woods north of Ors. Back in 1918 this forest had disappeared, pillaged by the Germans (or rather by the Germans’ forced labourer POW
s) for wood needed for the construction of trenches and dugouts, but it has since regrown.
The cellar of this Forester’s House is where Owen and his fellow officers took shelter the night before his death. It was in the “smoky cellar” of this building that Owen famously wrote his last letter home (see above
). The house survived the war and in 2011 was turned into a kind of piece of art. Only the cellar was preserved, the rest was utterly altered: the roof was opened up a little, to look like a book’s spine, and the whole structure was painted white (like a “bleached bone” as the designer wrote). A circular ramp leads up to the entrance. On the walls lines from that final letter of Owen’s are inscribed.
The inside was gutted, all inner walls and ceilings were removed so that now it is just one single, chapel-like hall. Translucent glass panels line the walls with etchings of Owen’s poetry in his own handwriting, plus projections in print. Hidden loudspeakers play recitals of Owen’s poems.
There are a few text panels outside the house that provide some background info about the war and Wilfred Owen, but the Forester’s House as such is purely symbolic and/or inspirational … Opinions about the reworking of the historic building vary, and quite a lot. When I was in The Somme
I heard some very dismissive value judgements about it, but others seem to like it.
The Forester’s House is also the official start and end point of the “In the footsteps of Wilfred Owen” hiking trail
(“Sur les pas de Wilfred Owen” in French). From here the trail first leads diagonally through the forest and meets the road at the other end, which the trail follows for a bit before branching off to the left through some fields to get to the
next stop on the route, the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery
with its 107 graves.
A short distance to the east is the canal that Owen and his company were supposed to cross and where he and others were shot dead by German machine-gun fire coming from across the water.
The trail then follows the canal banks south all the way to the bridge and locks in Ors. Here you can find a commemorative plaque by the Western Front Association. The route carries on through the main square of Ors, and onwards west. Then it branches right into Rue de la Gare. The communal cemetery with Wilfred Owen’s grave is almost at the end of this road.
The trail then heads back to the forest and through it (on a different path) and eventually comes back to the Forester’s House. In total it’s four miles (6.5 km) long.
All in all
, this is surely a proper pilgrimage destination for dedicated pilgrims only. Compared to the bigger memorials, huge war cemeteries and comprehensive exhibitions of The Somme
and elsewhere, this is a rather minor site. I’m not sure if, left to my own devices, I would have made the considerable detour had it not been for my wife’s insistence. She’d studied Wilfred Owen’s poetry at school and was keen to come here and pay her respects. In hindsight, I’m glad we did. Not being British, I hadn’t even been so familiar with Owen’s work until discovering it through this pilgrimage. This inspired me to read some more afterwards. So it’s been educational for me beyond the pilgrimage itself!
in and around the small village of Ors by the Sambre-Oise Canal in the Cambrai department of the Haute-de-France region of northern France
, ca. 45 miles (70 km) south-east of Arras
and ca. 60 miles (100 km) north of Reims
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: quite off the beaten track; free
Details: Ors does have a stop on a TER train line, in fact it’s right next to the communal cemetery, so in theory it should be reachable by public transport, but connections seem to be very infrequent. So you really need your own means of transport and ideally a SatNav/GPS. This really is a proper pilgrimage destination, far away from any motorways or other major trunk roads.
The official Wilfred Owen trail starts and ends at the Forester’s House, which is to the north of Ors right by the D959 east-west route between Le Cateau-Cambrésis and Landrecies. There are plenty of free parking spaces at the site. If instead of walking the whole trail you want to drive on to the communal cemetery, take the D959 eastwards and after 550 metres turn right into an unmarked road through the forest that becomes Rue d’Ouïes, carry on for about a mile (1.6 km) and keep right to get on to Rue le la Louvière. The car park for the communal cemetery is on your left ca. 0.3 miles (450 m) further on.
The “In the footsteps of Wilfred Owen” hiking trail
(‘Sur les pas de Wilfred Owen’ in French) is signposted; it is 4 miles (6.5 km) long in total. You can also download a description and directions here
(external link, opens in a new window).
The Forester’s House has the following normal opening times: Wednesday to Friday 2 to 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 6 p.m.; first Sunday of each month 3 to 6 p.m., closed Mondays, Tuesdays and most Sundays, as well as the entire winter period (roughly between mid November and mid April). Admission free.
All other sites are theoretically freely accessible at all times.
Time required: walking the entire length of the Wilfred Owen trail is said to take about two hours. If you’re driving and just want to see the grave and the Forester’s House, less than half an hour will do.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The really dedicated can find yet more locations that in one way or another are associated with Wilfred Owen, including some not so far from Ors. But at almost all of those there is these days nothing much to be seen and no commodification
– if you’re nonetheless interested check out the listings on this webpage of the Wilfred Owen Association
(external link, opens in a new window).
But there are no other really significant dark-tourism sites in the immediate vicinity that feature on this website; the closest other dark destinations would be those of The Somme
to the west and Arras
and surroundings to the north-west.
See also under France
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
This isn’t the most scenic or touristy area, but see under France
- Ors 1 - community cemetery
- Ors 2 - Wilf Owen is in the back
- Ors 3 - here it is
- Ors 4 - tribute by the back of the stone
- Ors 5 - his forester house
- Ors 6 - commodified in a very strange way
- Ors 7 - quotation
- Ors 8 - other buildings nearby
- Ors 9 - trail map