Friday 2 November
Tuesday 16 January 1917
It was, of course, dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay 3,4 and 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water …
Sunday 4 February 1917
… in this place my Platoon had no Dug-Outs but had to lie out in the deadly wind. By day it was impossible to stand up or even crawl about because we were behind only a little ridge screening us from the Boche’s periscope.
Arriving in France in the early afternoon, we shall travel to the Somme to visit the Serre Road and the Redan Ridge in order to trace Owen’s movements when he joined the 2/Manchesters in this sector in January 1917 and, in particular, his experiences in the front line about which he wrote letters home and which were the inspiration for two important poems, ‘The Sentry’ and ‘Exposure’. We shall then travel to our hotel in Cambrai.
Saturday 3 November
14 May 1917
There was an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly.
We shall start the day at Bouchoir, where, on 1 March 1917, Owen re-joined his battalion after a three-week Army Transport course at Abbeville. Two weeks later he sustained a fall which brought on concussion and he was sent to a casualty clearing station to recover, thus missing the battalion’s renowned capture of what came to be known as ‘Manchester Hill’. We shall follow the subsequent action on 14 April, the battalion’s attack on Dancour Trench near Fayet, north-west of St Quentin. Owen took part in this engagement and it was the inspiration for the poem ‘Spring Offensive’. The battalion remained in the line for some days afterwards and we shall proceed to the spot on the railway embankment in Savy Wood where a shell exploded near Owen one night, precipitating his mental collapse at the end of the month. We shall end the morning with a half-hour walk along the canal bank from Gailly, the site of No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station, where Owen was sent on both 14 March and 30 April. Our walk will end at Cerisy, the spot which inspired the poem ‘Hospital Barge’.
4 October 1918
I came out in order to help these boys – directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first.
After lunch we shall visit the iconic Riqueval Bridge, where 46th Division broke through the Hindenburg Line to cross the St Quentin Canal on 29 September 1918, enabling Owen’s 32nd Division to leapfrog through and advance towards the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line, the third and final German fortification. We shall move on to Joncourt Village and the ridge beyond it which 2/Manchesters successfully stormed on the 1 and 2 October, the action in which Owen’s bravery, initiative and leadership led to the award of his Military Cross.
Sunday 4 November
Thursday 31 October 1918
It is a great life. I am more oblivious than, alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. … Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surrounds me here.
The plans for the commemoration of the centenary are not yet finalised, but we shall participate fully in the events of the day. We shall certainly be on the canal bank at Ors at 6.30 a.m., the time, as close as we can know, to the moment when Owen was killed in the last action of the 2/Manchesters before the Armistice, the storming of the Sambre-Oise Canal. Other events during the course of the day will include an ecumenical service in the church at Ors, a reception at the Mairie and an evening commemoration in the village cemetery, where Owen is buried.
Monday 5 November
In the morning we shall visit the Wilfred Owen Centre for a performance of readings by a group of contemporary poets of their contributions to a new Anthology of Reconciliation compiled in honour of Wilfred Owen. After an early lunch, we shall travel to Calais for our journey home.