Last weekend I went to the small town of Saint-Venant in Nord Pas-de-Calais, France, to see the final realisation of Didier Rousseau’s two-year project to create an exhibition based on the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon. Didier, an environmentalist and man of letters, is the owner of the Manoir de la Peylouse, a historic house built contemporaneously with the dismantling of the neighbouring Vauban fortress. The remains of the original fortifications can still be seen in the town, and the 17th-century powder-store in the grounds was saved from demolition by Didier and his wife Luce, who have converted it into a small arts centre, now known as “La Poudrière”.
Early in the war, the house itself was used during the war as the headquarters of Indian and other Commonwealth troops. It subsequently passed through the hands of General Haig, who used it as a staff college, as evidenced by historic photographs that can be seen around the house. In 1916, Portugal entered the war, and the Portuguese army used the house as a headquarters in 1917-18.
The Manoir was also for a time the home of the editor Daniel Halévy (1872-1962), who was responsible for the publication of one of the most notable French novels set during the First World War, Le diable au corps, a sensational work by a teenager, Raymond Radiguet (who would die of typhoid at the age of twenty). The book became a best-seller, more for its scandalous nature than for its literary merit or its relatively few references to the war.
Right next to the gardens of the Manoir is the River Lys, now a haven for pleasure-boats. Fierce fighting took place in this area in 1918, some of it involving the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were back again in 1940 as recognised by a granite memorial that stands alongside the river. A Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, containing burials from both wars, is incorporated into the town cemetery, a short walk away from the Manoir.
When Didier Rousseau read of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, he became enchanted with his work. Realising that Siegfried must have been stationed close by (“The Dug-out” is dated July 1918 and was written at Saint-Venant), he conceived the idea of an exhibition, centring on the Manoir’s beautiful gardens, that would draw the attention of the people of the region to Sassoon’s former presence in the area as well as spreading the word about his poetry. Photographic evidence shows that the gardens are little changed since that time, and Siegfried would not have missed the chance to walk in them, even if he had no reason to enter the house. However, Didier’s investigations suggest it is entirely possible that Sassoon was there as early as 1915, when the house was a training centre for military personnel in the use of the trench mortar, a new weapon developed by the French army.
It was Didier’s vision to create a garden walk for his visitors; it has taken time and effort to obtain the necessary permission to reproduce Siegfried’s work for a temporary exhibition, as well as obtaining support from the local authorities and deciding the form of the exhibition – which poems to include and how to display them. Some have been translated into French in order to attract French visitors to Sassoon’s work. The poems are printed on weatherproof canvases and attached to the ancient trees, of many varieties, that are to be found in the garden. Other information has been printed on panels displayed on tree-"stumps" manufactured from non-endangered species.
Inside La Poudrière, visitors can see another exhibition entitled “Siegfried & Co”, which includes information about 12 “soldier-poets” who were stationed on the Artois-Lys front at one time or another. The criteria for inclusion are somewhat relaxed, as can be seen from those numbered among the twelve: as well as Sassoon, Blunden, Gurney, Graves and David Jones, we have Osbert Sitwell, Frank Richards, “Bim” Tennant and C S Lewis!
The garden is open to the general public at weekends, free of charge, but La Poudrière is reserved for Didier’s invited guests, so don’t forget to let me know if you are thinking of calling in. Didier and Luce are always delighted to welcome Sassoon enthusiasts from the UK.