Poetry Tours of the Western Front
Tours with Battle Honours
Since 2012 I have been conducting, in association with Battle Honours Ltd. a series of tours to explore the various sectors on the Western Front where the combatant poets were engaged, and to use this context to extend our understanding of their writings. So far, tours have been based on the Somme, on Arras, on Ypres and on Loos and Cambrai.
Siegfried Sassoon on the Western Front
Wilfred Owen on the Western Front
In November 2018 I shall be conducting, along with Clive Harris, historian and director of Battle Honours, a tour of the sectors in which Wilfred Owen served. We shall use Owen’s verse and letters to follow his two tours of duty on the Western Front and to help us understand how those experiences affected him and the enormous impact they had on his writing.
Tuesday 16 January 1917
Sunday 4 February 1917
Arriving in France in the early afternoon of 2 November, 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’.
14 May 1917
We shall start the following 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
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.
Thursday 31 October 1918
On Sunday 4 November we shall join the people of Ors and members of the Wilfred Owen Association of France 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 crossing 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.
On our last day, Monday 5 November we shall visit the Wilfred Owen Centre (formerly the ‘Forester’s House’, from where Owen wrote his last letter home on the night of 31 October 1918) for readings by a group of contemporary poets of their contributions to a new Anthology of Reconciliation compiled in Owen’s honour.
For further details go to the website of Battle Honours: www.battle-honours.co.uk and select ‘Association Tours’ from the menu.
Tours with ACE Cultural Tours
Poetry and the Great War: ACE Cultural Tours 4 – 8 June 2018
I shall be guiding this tour along with the tour director, military historian Dr John Greenacre. As the world marks the centenary of the end of the war, our literary tour will shed light on the human side of the conflict through the words of a range of writers, both well-known and less familiar. From our base in the historical town of Arras we will travel to sites associated with key individuals and offensives, tracking the war’s chronological progress, while hearing from those who took part.
On the first day we shall visit the Loos sector to hear Robert Graves’s account of the battle and to visit the spot where Rudyard Kipling’s son is believed to be buried and the area where the young poet Charles Hamilton Sorley was killed in action.
On the second day we shall visit Louvencourt Cemetery to reflect on the writing of Roland Leighton and to examine the myth of a trajectory from idealism to disillusionment in the poetry of the war. From there we shall travel along the southern part of the Allied front line in the Battle of the Somme, using the writings of Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and David Jones to illuminate our understanding. In the evening John Greenacre will deliver a lecture on the Battle of the Somme. Mametz Wood on the Somme, where both Siegfried Sassoon and David Jones fought. (Day 2)
On the third day we shall explore the northern sector of the Somme battlefield with Edmund Blunden and A.P. Herbert as our guides. We shall go on to visit the spots where Frederic Manning and Wilfred Owen fought and to read some of the work which arose from their experiences. In the evening I shall deliver a lecture on the war experiences and writings of Richard Aldington and Ivor Gurney.
On the penultimate day of the tour, we shall make visits to areas close to Arras where Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg served, again using their work to illuminate our understanding of events and their impact on those writers. In the evening John Greenacre will deliver a lecture on the War in 1918.
On our final day we shall travel to sectors in which the closing stages of the war were fought in order to explore the battlefield experiences of Wilfred Owen, including the action at Joncourt for which he was awarded the Military Cross and his final engagement on the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal, and we shall end our tour at his grave in Ors.