Wilfred Owen’s last letter, 31st of October 1918
‘Dearest Mother, (…) there is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines. (…) Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half as fine as surround me here. Ever Wilfred X.’
The 2nd Manchesters bending their backs under low brick ceilings,
Holding onto each other to find their way away from shellings,
Feeling not the weight of fate on them, but dreams of merrier days,
For they were together now; glee on their lips and hope in their gaze.
But for now grey fumes hover over them; underground just lantern-lit
In this dreaded place echoing outside’s ghastly noise they must sit–
W. O. laughs plentily; nudged every second, by their jokes elated
Believing that never from this cheery bunch he should be parted,
He waves the smoke away; keeps inking his already blotted letter,
Writes that he expects cease-fire soon, and home all for the better.
Soon a whistle would resound; the draft dropped in stagnant water,
Never recovered but to disappear, drowned in the upcoming slaughter.
Only from afar they hear sappers rushing to their brittle bridge,
Dodging shells when running from atop the field’s salient’s ridge,
Some lying on the sodden ground, nails digging into their head–
They reflect: ‘Crossing the bridge, what a cynical metaphor!
For the Lord shall decide to make this very place the deathbed
Of those who will not succeed in reaching the other shore!’
Though Poets are oracles of Heaven; there they must return
And exalt their fate with tragedy, lest their wings should burn.
So he fell. – His hand holding a Webley dripping with mud,
Rather than the pen kept in his pocket drenched with blood;
His men rushing past – blades forward, not one of them heeding
The mass grave of forlorn souls on which they were treading.
Should one be so careless as to feed these furrows of thick clay
–– with drafts abandoned by their dying owner?
To open his mother’s door while bells ring for Armistice day
–– knowing her son shall never come back to her?
For he would not know peace. His poetry immortal witness
Of what had driven him to bitter end through Europe’s madness.
His tombstone a pale white in a common grave of fallen youth,
Hollow amongst too many Dead, devoid of a senseless truth:
He trod the Earth once; he was a man before being a martyr.
He lived, smiled like you and me– and now he may speak no longer.
Wilfred Owen is a very important figure in my life; whereas I used to be exclusively interested in the French side of History, getting an interest in him, his life and his work made me switch to the British side and got me started in attempting to write poetry.
‘4th of November 2018’, as its title indicates, is a piece written for the centenary of his death anniversary. It relates through poetry what truly happened that fateful day. After enjoying a last night together in the cellar of the Forester’s House, in Ors (now a museum about Owen), the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment were sent to attack the Germans through the Sambre-Oise canal after the Royal Engineers built bridges over the water for them. Owen was killed that day, just a few days before the end of the war; his mother would only learn it right as the armistice bells resounded.
Edward Ashworth was born in Corsica but gained an interest in British history & culture after teaching himself English.
He has been awarded several prizes by the French Ministry of Education and the French National Veteran Office for his work on the First and Second World War.