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The Armistice centenary raises wider issues - and a chance to hear first hand responses to the war's horror

Alexander Waldmann, Town Mayor Lisa Farrell and Dame Janet SuzmanAlexander Waldmann, Town Mayor Lisa Farrell and Dame Janet Suzman“War and the Pity of War” was the title for the evening of readings of the letters and poetry of Wilfred Owen in Marlborough Town Hall on Sunday (November 4). 

That this date was the very centenary of the poet’s death in action added poignancy to the occasion. 

The difficulty of appropriately commemorating the fallen of that war was an issue raised by the Revd Canon Andrew Studdert Kennedy in his talk Whatever happened to God? Faith and the First World War (November 6) which was part of the College's Memorial Hall Festival 2018.  His talk centred on his grandfather, ‘Woodbine Willy’, the noted Great War chaplain.

It was another part of Marlborough’s programme commemorating the Armistice of 1918.  To make this centenary into a bombastic patriotic effusion would be out-of-place. 

However, listening to the very voices from the trenches evocatively and chillingly echoed in Owen’s words was appropriate. He shared a recognition of the futility of the war with many others, including his fellow poets like his mentor, Siegfried Sassoon and Charles Sorley - two Marlburians whose lives were also commemorated during the Festival in a lecture by their biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson.

Of course there was something more to the experience of the poets than the essence of a deep tragedy. Andrew Studdert Kennedy suggested it lay in their quality of integrity. 

The disillusion of men like Owen, Sassoon and his grandfather (also a poet) stemmed not from a dereliction of duty – all three were awarded the Military Cross. Their developing sense of integrity forged a sense of deep loyalty to their fellows based on their mutual suffering. Thus Owen and Sassoon chose to return to the front line when they could have avoided doing so.

All these qualities emerged from the brilliant readings of Owen’s works by Dame Janet Suzman and Alexander Waldmann. 

The audience needed no reminding that the one was an Oscar nominee and twice Actress of the Year: the other, one of our foremost Shakespearean actors. It showed in the sensitivity of the readings, which caught every nuance of the poetry and prose. The absolute silence throughout the performance spoke volumes in itself. 

Huge credit must go to Dr. Roger Pringle for his work in editing into a gripping programme over 600 letters of Wilfred Owen and a comprehensive selection of his wonderful poetry. 

This letter of appreciation came as a token of the audience's reaction to this timely event:  "Dear Nick, I thought it was terrific of you to lay on such a fantastic evening with the war poets. I think it’s the best event I’ve ever experienced in the Town Hall - could have listened to them all night."

"Wonderful that you were able to bring such famous actors to Marlborough. They made the readings so alive and personal.  It was altogether unforgettable…Great thanks."

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