Tag Archives: Belgium

Standing where Wilfred Owen was Killed

When we left Mons, Belgium and Le Cateau, France we visited the battlefields of the Somme with guides Tony and Nicky Bird . At the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal I stood where I would have been able to see Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, the finest and most important poet of the war, in a small boat trying to cross.

As was so often the case, the action Owen and his men were expected to carry out was difficult in the extreme. A pontoon bridge and rafts were being laid across the canal. The location was under heavy and constant machine gun fire. But the soldier must obey.

Owen was shot and killed while trying to cross the canal. For a moment I was seeing it happen Lieutenant Wilfred Ownebefore my eyes. Once in a while, especially when I hear certain songs, my chest tightens and sobs arise. This happened to me while I stood on the banks of the narrow Sambre-Oise Canal and looked at the water.

Lieutenant Owen was shot and killed a week before the Armistice was signed. At the moment when church bells were ringing in England to celebrate the Armistice, Owen’s mother was handed the telegram announcing that her son had been killed.

Owen’s war poetry is not like that of Rudyard Kipling or Rupert Brook, who both glorified war. His was of the horror and ugliness, the brutality and pointlessness of it. In the “The End” he asked:

Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth

All death will he annul, all tears assuage?

Or fill these void veins full again with youth,

And wash with an immortal water, age?

 The answer to these rhetorical questions is No. These few lines convey a sense of Owen’s view of war.

His mother, Susan Owen, quoted from these lines for her son’s gravestone. However, she removed the question mark after the second sentence, reversing her son’s poem’s very meaning. And she left out the rest of the stanza. She thought it better to let those who view his grave, which is frequently visited, thing that he believed that God (he) will cancel (annul) death, that there is life after. This is not what her son wrote.

I have had an academic interest in World War I for a long time. My Masters thesis was on a tetralogy, (four related novels) about the First World War, Parade’s End by Ford Mattox Ford. In my study for that work I also read deeply in the poets of the war, especially Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon.

I am also a poet, having had five books of poetry published. Poets often feel a kinship with one another. So while I was surprised at the depth of my emotions, I was not surprised that I was moved. I am grateful for being at that place, having those emotions, and, in that small way paying tribute to Owen. I thank him for helping shape my own attitude toward war when I read him years ago.

 

A Day of Commemoration and Commitment

The Legend of the Angel of Mons

The Legend of the Angel of Mons

Sarah and I had the privilege of taking part in four hours of ceremonies commemorating the first battle between the Germans and the British in World War I in Mons, Belgium. The afternoon began with the planting of a tall oak tree in a park. There were moving speeches by the Prime Minister of Belgium, the ambassadors from Germany, Canada, and Great Britain. Of course, we could best understand the speeches that were in English. I was moved to hear special mention made of two of the major characters in The Angel of Mons, Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sidney Godley.

Then the entourage—and four buses of invited guests, the two of us included—went on to three sites in Mons where wreaths were laid in commemoration of the soldiers who died on all sides. At Place des Martyrs, and at the memorial to the first and last battles in which Great Britain’s soldiers fought words of reconciliation and prayers for peace were spoken.At St. Symphorien Military Cemetery, where soldiers from Belgium, England, and Germany are buried, hundreds of people attended a stirring ceremony. The one priest who delivered his address in English was eloquent in his plea that the nations and peoples of the world work for peace for all. Then we attended a reception at the Town Hall, a magnificent building, the focal point of the Grand Place.

Many times during the day Sarah and I were moved to gentle tears.

We have met many people who we have enjoyed getting to know. We will stay in touch with them.

 

We carry with us thoughts of our many friends and family, and convey in our hearts their good works for peace for all the peoples of the world. In a way, we are your ambassadors.

 

Events Sarah and I will Take Part in in Mons

Angel of Mons Valse-Cover Art

Angel of Mons Valse-Cover Art

On August 23, two days from now, Sarah and I will take part in ceremonies in Mons, Belgium commemorating the first battle between the British and the Germans on this same date one hundred years ago. The Germans predicted and promised that the war would be over, and Germany victorious, before Christmas of that year. In fact, the hope was that it would be over “before the leaves turned.” As we know, the war ended four years and two months later. More than 9 million soldiers died and 7 million civilians. These numbers are beyond our comprehension. The world was turned upside down. Nothing good came of it.

Sadly, I am reminded of the predictions made by our own political leaders regarding the war in Iraq. Weeks or a couple of months at the outside. We would be hailed as liberators. That was the promise of those in the administration. Ten years later the war came to a miserable end.

The events we will take part in in Mons

> From 10am until 4pm:  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is organising an open day at St. Symphorien Military Cemetery. The CWGC invites you to find out about the different skills used withintheir association, including stone engravers, gardeners, historians, tree surgeons and bronzeworkers.

> From 10am until 5:30pm:  An additional educational camp will be open, with representatives from the British infantry and cavalry, in UCL Mons’ fields next to the commemorative sites at La Bascule. Throughout the day visitors will be able to watch training exercises involving the horses.

> 9pm:  Military music concert in the Grand’ Place in Mons including the participation of Pipe Bands (Celtic Passion from Mons and the Somme Battlefield Pipe Band) and a unique performance by the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.

> 10:30pm:  3D screening in the Grand’Place in Mons, with stunning pyrotechnics in memory of thelegendary appearance of the Angels of Mons.

Be with us in spirit and prayer. It is always my hope that the world will see peace for all, and peace everlasting. I am sure that you share this hope and do what you can to see its fulfillment.

It would be fitting for you to be reading The Angel of Mons: A World War I Legend on August 23. If not then, read it soon, and let me know what you think of it.