During a five day pilgrimage to the sites where my grandfather fought in World War One, my sister, elderly father, and I spent every waking moment together, and shared a single room in a series of French inns each night. It was with giddy relief that I left them sleeping in Arras, found the rental car in the dark hours of the morning, and headed southeast. I hoped to cover the fifty miles quickly, spend an hour in Ors, and return for a late breakfast with the family. I knew little about my destination, only that it was a small village, and that my ultimate goal should require a minimum of detective work.
If she had been alive, my mother would have come along for the ride, navigating from the passenger seat. Our pilgrimage would become a story to tell the neighbors, already intimidated by her reading habits. Every summer, when I came home to visit, I found Mom on the deck, seated among the redwoods, a Trollope novel in her lap, and an iced tea at hand. When we spread her ashes high in the Sierra, I read aloud from Doctor Zhivago: “But all the time, life, one, immense, identical throughout its innumerable combinations and transformations, fills the universe and is continually reborn.” The words brought only greater loneliness that August morning, where once they would have sparked a lively conversation.
Mom was always waiting when we got home from school, so she must have been around when I first read Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Written while the poet was hospitalized for shell shock, it is unrivaled in its depiction of the horrors specific to World War One. Owen’s description of a man dying of poisonous gas comes through the eyes of a survivor who has been quicker with his mask:
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
The next two lines capture the nightmares that haunted Owen and his fellow patients:
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
I first read his Dulce et Decorum Est in a high school text book but soon owned my own slim copy of his poems, and then an enormous tome of his letters. I read every word of his correspondence, which reveal a remarkably close friendship with his own mother.
The editor’s casual footnote “We have omitted seventeen words” comes in the midst of a letter in which Owen asks his mother to send three portfolios from his desk at home. He writes, “I don’t mind if you damage the cupboard-door. But don’t damage the hinges of your mind by wrenching the secrets of my portfolios. This sounds mysterious; but I am serious. Some of these verses will light my cigarettes, but one or two may light the darkness of the world. It is not a question of wheat and chaff but of devils and angels…” Then, seventeen words omitted. The editor responsible is Owen’s brother Harold.
I wondered what secrets mother and son had shared that a surviving brother would want to hide, and how closely their friendship reflected my mother’s and mine. My curiosity was piqued as I read about the arrival of poet Siegfried Sassoon in Owen’s life. Owen was recovering from shell shock when he wrote to his mother from Craiglockhart Hospital, near Edinburgh, on August 22, 1917, “The most momentous news I have for you is my meeting with Sassoon. He was struggling to read a letter from H.G. Wells when I went in.” By September 12, he was noting that, “Your questions concerning him are searching,” before describing Sassoon as a triple threat: “The man is tall and noble-looking . . . The Friend is intensely sympathetic . . . As for the Poet you know my judgement. What’s your’s?”
Owen was at Craiglockhart with a legitimate diagnosis, having suffered a severe concussion, and later being blown into the air by an exploding shell. Sassoon was hospitalized by British authorities who hoped the label of neurasthenia would weaken the influence of his antiwar rhetoric. The men’s convalescence overlapped for a mere ten weeks. Months later, they met in London shortly before Owen’s return to the front.
“I have been incoherent ever since I tried to say goodbye on the steps of Lancaster Gate,” Owen wrote to Sassoon, referring to their parting near an entrance to Kensington Gardens. “But everything is clear now: & I’m in hasty retreat to the Front . . . What more is there to say that you will not better understand unsaid.”
The love shared by Owen and Sassoon—dismissed as a romantic friendship by scholars for much of the last century—was no small discovery for a teenager in 1976, facing the fact of his own attraction to men. Even in the suburbs of San Francisco, being gay was cause for shame, fear, and a bleak outlook on a lonely future. To find that I shared these challenges with my literary hero gave me comfort. To suspect that he had found love gave me hope.
When I moved to London to begin college, Mom and I began our own exchange of letters. Writing to her from that same Lancaster Gate in September 1979, I described my meeting with an old lady feeding birds in Kensington Gardens: “She told me all kinds of interesting things she’s seen here. She saw a swan wrap its wings around a dog and drown it! She also said the seagulls got back in June instead of September, which means a bad winter.” After finding shelter in a nearby colonnade, I added, “The rain has stopped but I’m perfectly content sitting here talking to you.”
Like Mrs. Owen, Mom’s questions could be searching. She must have grown concerned about my feelings for a college staff member when I wrote, “It’s looking more and more likely that Bob & I will go to the Orkneys in Oct. I’m a little worried though. I don’t want to become dependent on his knowledge and age. I have to learn things for myself.”
Besotted with young love, I came out to Mom over Christmas break, and wondered if Owen had done the same with his mother while on leave. I pictured them sitting up late, after the family had gone to bed. Like me, Owen wouldn’t have the courage to say the words. Like my mother, Mrs. Owen would be forced to ask the question. Unlike Owen and his mother, though, Mom and I had decades of conversation before us. She would welcome my partners into the family—and comment quietly on those who didn’t make the grade. Of a Rodeo Drive hairdresser, she famously observed, “I would have been disappointed if you’d spent your life with a man who spent his making women look like something they’re not.”
In contrast, on November 4, 1918, a week before the armistice, Wilfred Owen was killed as he led his men across the Sambre-Oise Canal, near the French village of Ors.
The rain was heavy and the E15 endlessly detoured onto country lanes that were themselves blocked by tractors that tripled the length of my estimated driving time. Arriving in Ors at last, I found the village streets empty and the gray walls running with water. The sign for the British war cemetery pointed directly into a well-occupied cow pasture.
I climbed three stiles and maneuvered past wide-eyed Limousins before finding the secluded spot, defined by a well-trimmed hedge and marked by one of the sword-like crosses that dot the Somme Valley. Before entering, I strode to the bank of the nearby canal, scrambling through leafy trees to emerge on a muddy, two-track road that ran along the water.
It was there that Owen was shot and killed, helping his men construct a bridge while under heavy fire. I imagined the deafening barrage of artillery, the cries of men driven to kill. Comrades who visited Owen’s mother after the armistice described him patting them on the back and saying, “Well done” or “You are doing well, my boy.” The words must have been screamed to be heard.
In the tiny cemetery, my shoes soaked, I walked from stone to stone, reading each name aloud, waiting to come upon Owen’s. It wasn’t there. I walked the rows again, but still no Owen. Defeated and cranky, I was navigating back through the narrow streets when I saw a sign for the village cemetery.
Walking past the eccentric stones of ancient families, I came to a small enclosure of British graves. Along the back, among a row of uniform white markers, was Owen’s. It’s a simple headstone, identical to those of his comrades, except for a quote at the bottom: “Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth all death will he annul.”
The words are from Owen’s The End, but the question mark that should complete the line has been changed to a period. The poem in its entirety contradicts the Christian notion that life will be renewed at the end of time. And yet, in his last letter home, Owen was far from cynical. He wrote, “Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.” Mrs. Owen received the letter after receiving news of her son’s death, which arrived by telegram as local church bells pealed the end of the Great War.
Since my pilgrimage, the house where Owen wrote that last letter was transformed by artist Simon Patterson into a contemporary, bleached-stone tribute that greets visitors with a recording of Kenneth Branagh reciting Owen’s poetry. Town leaders hoped it would increase the trickle of pilgrims to a steady stream.
It’s a smart move. Had such a memorial existed when my family traveled through France, I might have brought them along. There would have been a destination, something for them to photograph. But I’m happy I visited when I did, when there was nothing but one grave among many, rain-soaked streets, and the keen awareness of another’s absence.
An award-winning playwright, Norman Allen has seen his work produced around the world, from Prague to Tokyo and Cape Town to Edinburgh. His essays and commentary have appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, and Yes! and published online at OnBeing and Tikkun. He recently received his Masters of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary and serves as Minister to the congregation at Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church in Camp Springs, Maryland.