Poets On The Western Front Tour Review & Gallery - August 2017
After an easy train journey from St Pancras to Lille, we soon arrived by coach in the battlefields of Neuve Chapelle and Loos, exploring the areas where Charles Sorley was killed and William Hodgson beat off German counterattacks, and discussing the identification of the grave of John Kipling. These 1915 battlefields were also where David Jones and Isaac Rosenberg would first experience the trenches.
Before reaching Arras, a special visit was included to Villers Station Cemetery so that one of our tour members, Simon could visit the grave of his great uncle.
On day two, we set off from our stately and picturesque hotel in Arras for a full day on the Somme. At Serre we reflected on the tragedy of the Pals on 1st July 1916 and the death of the poet John Streets, listened to the candid description by Frederick Manning of the renewed attack in November, and learned about Wilfred Owen's traumatic initiation into trench warfare in early 1917.
After seeing the grave of Roland Leighton at Louvencourt, at a roadside crucifix at Aveluy we listened to a haunting song written there by Ivor Gurney in 1917. Following lunch in Albert, we saw the grave of William Hodgson at Devonshire Trench Cemetery, and continued to Mametz Wood, where David Jones attacked with the London Welsh and Wyn Griffith made a tragic discovery during the battle. Giovanni, our excellent and cheerful driver, drove us up a farm track to Flat Iron Copse, near to where Robert Graves was inspired to write a bitter war poem.
The third day took us to the St Quentin area, beginning with an attack in which Ivor Gurney was wounded and described in his poem 'The Silent One'. I have recently identified the NCO about whom this poem was written and we were able to visit his grave. Not far away we stopped where Wilfred Owen took part in an attack in April 1917 which inspired his great poem 'Spring Offensive'.
Following Owen's last days in 1918 was definitely a highlight for many of us. At Joncourt, a cemetery contains Owen's men killed in an attack in October, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. A month later, he wrote his last letter home, describing contentedly sharing a cramped cellar with his comrades, the very cellar into which we gathered to hear his words. We walked to the canal side where he lost his life in a desperate attack on 4th November 1918 and finally arrived at the tiny cemetery where his body lies alongside those of his men, including two posthumous VCs.
Day four began with the graves of two poets lost near Arras, Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg. Finally, we followed the route of the ambulance driven in 1916 by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams through the chalk downlands behind Vimy Ridge to the village school used as a Dressing Station. We walked down the road to buildings used as billets and searched for wartime graffiti on the village church. From here, Giovanni returned us to Lille where we boarded our train home.
View details of this tour - The War Poets