Great War Composers and Poets Day 4: Bliss, Warren and Owen

Today started with more excitement (of the wrong sort) than we had expected. Our now-established routine of loading the car, and getting a quick breakfast from the local boulangerie, was interrupted when we found our (James’s) car was not where we had left it. We had failed to spot the different parking restrictions on a Saturday morning due to the Arras market, and we quickly realised that “Bruce”, as the car is affectionately known, must have been towed.

We went back to our hotel, where the receptionist was incredibly helpful (top marks to the Arras Ibis!), and phoned the police to ask what we needed to do. We walked the 15 minutes to the police station, where the gendarmes were far more helpful and polite than we had feared. In fact, after the paperwork was finished, they even gave us a lift to the towing company, saving us a 45 minute walk! Even there, the service was helpful and efficient, and once we had paid a fine we were on our way quickly. The whole episode was done in little over an hour, and could have been far worse!

And so, after a hasty (and sugary) breakfast, we set on our way to Cambrai, about 20 miles south west of Arras. The site of a major battle in late 1917, and where the English composer Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) was gassed. The battle at Cambrai was a truly horrific one, with over 50,000 Germans and over 44,000 allied forces losing their lives. Bliss did not die there - he went on to compose great music over the following decades - but it did represent the end of his war.

We first went to the main Cambrai memorial to the missing, some 10 miles out of the town, and in the absence of any appropriate music by Arthur Bliss, we played amongst others Francis Purcell Warren’s “Ave Verum”. Warren (1895-1916) had already gone missing, presumed dead, by this point in the war, but this felt like an appropriate commemoration. While his music is not as well known as some of the composers we are celebrating on this trip, it still has a real poignancy to it, and if he had lived beyond the age of 21 he would doubtless have written many more works that would be known today.

We then travelled to the other side of Cambrai, where there is a cemetery for over 10,000 of the German soldiers killed in the battle (as well as some English and Russian soldiers). We wanted to do this in the spirit of reconciliation and friendship - and so we played the Adagio from Beethoven’s trio for three cellos (one of our old favourites since 2004). You can see an extract from the performance in this video clip.

After a crêpe for lunch in the centre of Cambrai, we headed 40 minutes further west to the village of Ors. This was the site of one of the final battles of the war, and for us was noteworthy because of the involvement - and death - of the poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). Just a week before the end of the war, Owen was part of a British battalion attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise canal by using a floating bridge. Sadly, the operation was a disaster due to the Germans occupying the opposite bank, and able to shoot at will once they saw what was happening. Owen was one of those shot and killed, at the age of just 25. His war poem “Futility” was obviously not about this incident, but could not be a more appropriate description of it.

We parked in the sleepy village of Ors, and walked the kilometre or so up to the point of the fateful crossing attempt. It was easy to see how straightforward it would have been for the Germans to spot the attack even under the cover of darkness. We played an arrangement of Parry’s great choral anthem “My Soul, there is a Country”, a setting of words by Henry Vaughan, written during the war (see video). We then went on to see Owen’s grave, in the village itself. Chillingly, almost every grave in that section of the cemetery had the same date of death.

Before leaving that part of the world we paid a visit to the Wilfred Owen Maison Forestière, the forester’s house a couple of miles down the road where Owen had stayed in the cellar before the attack was launched. Movingly, his final letter to his mother was read out through speakers in the cellar. At the end of all this, we’re feeling emotionally and physically drained (temperatures again into the mid 30s!), and as I write this we’re on our way back to Arras to recuperate before our final day of the tour tomorrow.

Highlight of the day: Playing by the canal, at the spot where Wilfred Owen had been killed.

Quote of the day: “Our taxi’s here!” - said by James (jokingly) as a police car pulled up outside the police station. Little did we know then that this car really would give us a lift to the towing company!