War poet's last post of hope from a tiny cellar

By Catherine Field

ORS - A beam of light stabs the darkness and with it comes a jolt down the spine caused not by the deep chill of northern France in January but a sense that here, in this tiny brick cellar, is a direct connection with a moment in history.

There are surely ghosts in this place.

It was here, in the curved-roofed basement of a forester's house, as shells crumped and crashed in the distance and his candle guttered in the smoke, that a young man wrote to his mother for what would be the last time.

The date was October 31, 1918, and the author was the poet Wilfred Owen. After more than four years of trench warfare, only a few days of fighting were left. The Germans were falling back, although putting up a stiff rearguard defence, and the Allies were in hot pursuit.

Owen describes the scene in the crammed cellar as his unit cavort around. They are in high spirits, swapping rations, telling jokes and boiling up spuds for a meal, daring at last to believe that they will miraculously survive the butchery.

"I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here," the young lieutenant says, his attempt to reassure so telling of that bond between mother and son.

"Of this I am certain, you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. There is no danger down here or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines."

Little more than four days later, Owen was killed as he and his men came under machinegun fire trying to cross the Sambre-Oise canal, just a kilometre away. His mother opened the War Office telegram informing her of his death on November 11 - just as church bells in her home in Shrewsbury were ringing out to celebrate the Armistice.

Nearly 90 years on, Owen's poems are more popular than ever, and just as relevant. He and his fellow war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, have a passionate following. Their condemnation of war is a universal message spanning time, cultures and language.

Now thanks to a French village mayor who became captivated by Owen's verse, the cellar where the young poet neared his death is set to open to the world, providing a unique meeting point of the poetry of war. The scheme is the brainchild of Jacky Duminy, a now-retired railway worker who, as mayor of the 1000 souls of Ors, knew nothing about Owen until 1991.

"We had a stream of occasional visitors to the Commonwealth War Cemetery in the village, but we didn't know why. Then one day, someone from the Western Front Association told me that we had a famous poet called Wilfred Owen who was buried there. Owen? I had never heard of him."

Duminy discovered that his own godfather was an amateur translator into French of British World War I poetry, including Owen. His interest piqued, Duminy read up, and became an enormous fan. He now organises readings of Owen's poetry on November 4, the anniversary of his death, along with a ceremonial wreath-laying.

Horror of war is imprinted in the clay of Ors and in Duminy's bones. The village straddles one of Europe's bloodiest crossroads. It was a battlefield in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870; in World War I and World II; and it saw bouts of vicious fighting and cruel occupation.

Duminy's father was a forced labourer in Germany in World War II; he was released in 1944 and found his way home. Just as the family was celebrating his freedom, his teenage son, Jacky Duminy's brother, was rounded up and shot dead by the Germans. "We must keep alive the memory of Owen and the people who died here. Owen speaks to the world today."

A decade or so ago, a member of the Wilfred Owen Association told Duminy about Owen's final letter. After delving into village records, including a detailed account by the parish priest, the mayor located the two-storey Maison de Forestiere where Owen and his unit had holed up. The house had become part of a French Army camp, which converted the upper floors but left the cellar untouched. Duminy is now driving an €800,000 ($1.6 million) scheme to turn the house into a historic monument and theatre for war poetry, where visitors and school parties can see the cellar, learn about Owen and his work and gather for readings.

The regional authorities and cultural organisations have already pitched in more than two-thirds of the funds.

All going well, the house will open on November 4, 2008, the 90th anniversary of Owen's death. In a gesture that Owen himself would surely have loved, the ceremony will feature a specially commissioned piece of music jointly written by two composers, one French and one German.

Owen's nephew, Peter Owen, is full of praise for the project, for it will extend appreciation of his uncle's poetry but also maintain awareness of World War I when the last soldier of the trenches will have died.

"There is no experience you can ever go through which would ever replicate the experience the soldiers went through. You have to have been there yourself, and the only way to get anywhere near it is when you see where people were. If you visit the same cellar that Wilfred sat in with his cook and 15 other people and ate his last meal, it is very moving."

British journalist Nigel Jones is a biographer of Rupert Brooke and last weekend led a party of British high school students to see the Western Front.

He says that, counter-intuitively, interest in World War I is increasing, not decreasing, as time passes. "The conflict in Iraq has once more brought the realities of war home."

Each year, more busloads of visitors come to see the trenches and the war graves that stud this part of France and Belgium. Save for a few places where it has been preserved, the trench system has faded into white scars across the treeless fields, although the farmers each year still gather a grim harvest of shells and bones when they turn the soil.

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