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Wilfred Owen's Places: The Dug-Out

The Dug-out

On 12th January 1917 the 2nd Manchesters were ordered to take over part of the front line on the Serre road known as C2 Sector. The British trenches in this section of the front, ran parallel to the present day Serre to Mailly-Maillet road (D.919) - in 1917 the road itself being in No Man's Land.

Wilfred Owen was at battalion HQ in La Signy Farm and immediately took command of the Manchesters’ "A" company setting out from there along a long communication trench known as Sackville Street. This led to the front line near a German stronghold jutting out towards the British trenches and known as the "Heidenkopf". Whilst the rest of his company took over the front line, Owen took charge of two Sections of one of his platoons (25 men), crossed over into No Man's Land and occupied a former German dug-out there. Conditions were appalling, for water filled it to a depth of between two and three feet leaving about four feet for air.

Being a German dug-out, the entrance and its steps down into it faced the German lines so it was necessary to post a sentry on the stairway in order to give warning of any approach by the enemy. During a terrific bombardment, one sentry was blown down the stairway and was blinded. On the 15th January, Owen and his men handed over to two companies of the 15th Bn. Highland Light Infantry and left the front. Owen’s fifty hours in the line were over.

As soon as Owen began to use his experience of war in his poetry, this early incident on the Serre road became a foundation for his poem "The Sentry".

The photograph was taken from the site of the former communication trench called Sackville Street. In 1917 the British front line followed the Serre road which is hidden in a cutting which runs from right to left across the picture and in front of the cemetery. Sackville Street entered the front line near to the present day cemetery (Serre Road No. 2.) which is on the right of the picture. The cemetery faces the Serre road and now occupies the area of what in 1917 was the German strong point called the Heidenkopf.

The German dug-out lay in the field to the left of the cemetery. In January 1917 the field was a mass of mud and formed part of No Man's Land with the German front line running from the rear of Serre Road No. 2 cemetery to the Memorial Chapel on the left hand side of the photograph.

The site of the dug-out was discovered by archaeologists in 2003

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