As 2018 draws to a close, and with it the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War, Director-General Diana Owen reflects on this year's Battlefield Tour, which took members to the 1918 battlefields of Northern France.
After we had crossed the Channel from Dover, our tour began with deeply moving visits to British cemeteries holding the remains of grandfathers and great uncles of members of our group. Unlike those of our Allies, many British cemeteries are relatively small and tucked away down now quiet village lanes with only the sounds of sky larks and distant agricultural machinery breaking the silence. The names of loved ones immaculately preserved, including a Medical Corps surgeon who won a VC, German soldiers & PoWs, Chinese labourers, and many others from across the British Empire, amplified our impressions of terrible loss. The bright sunlight, pink hydrangeas and red roses, poppies and wild flowers, make it hard to comprehend the horror of one hundred years ago.
Our tour had an unexpected symmetry for me, beginning and ending with the poet, Wilfred Owen’s experience of the war. Our first full day began at Manchester Hill, where Wilfred Owen took part in this action against the German advance and wrote his well-known poem Spring Offensive.
So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
However, there is no room in military history for the ‘musings of poets’ and a lively debate ensued on the merits of poetry and historical fact to tell a story. We enjoyed many unexpected debates over our four days together and I learnt new phrases, such as ‘kissing the barrage’, ‘flavoured smoke’ and ‘educating the enemy’ invented by the army, phrases that could well have been created by writers.
We were based at Amiens for three nights and had the great pleasure of encountering 17 pipe bands who were in town for the weekend to commemorate the many pipers and drummers who lost their lives in the Great War. United Pipers for Peace brought together pipe bands from across northern France and the UK marching in their full bearskins and kilts.
Notre Dame d’Amiens, one of the finest cathedrals in France, brought us a fantastic nightly light show that saw its western façade brought blazingly to life with sound and light, finishing with a projection of the medieval colours that had once graced this extraordinary structure.
Our tour began and ended with Wilfred Owen: first at Manchester Hill and then, finally Riqueval Bridge, near where Owen died on 4th November helping his men to cross the Sambre canal. His mother received the news of his death on 11 November 1918 as the Armistice was declared.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”
Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting
Read more articles of remembrance in the latest issue of Overseas here.