At last we can begin with Edmund Blunden and his Undertones of War, the most beautiful book written about the Great War,
Such declaration are, other than as expressions of individual enthusiasm, fairly meaningless. But, at the risk of protesting too much, I want to make it clear that I do not mean “beautiful” as a backhanded compliment. Nor do I want to play the silly old game of slapping down a splashy superlative and then hedging it around with qualifications, except for this: true war books are necessarily ugly, and there is plenty of horror and ugliness in Blunden’s memoir–its beauty does not obscure but, in an unusual way, facilitates truth-telling. The loveliness of the prose and the winsomeness of the narrative voice keep the sharp ironies of the war from ever dropping out of sight, while his quiet refusal to rage or despair keeps the reader more consistently in touch with the emotional landscape of the war. Undertones is a bed of nails by a Shaker master.
We have been reading a good deal of the dreamy, pretty prose with which Siegfried Sassoon fills his diary, and Blunden shares some of this sensibility with Sassoon. If many boys today dream of growing up to be athletes or rappers or pop stars, a surprising number of our 1890s English lads dreamt of becoming pastoral poets, and Blunden is very much of this tribe. Yet Sassoon’s memoir makes relatively little use of his day-to-day observations as he converts his memories and writings into a sturdily binocular exercise in navel-gazing. Sassoon is looking at the war, but only because his “binary vision” is fixed upon himself, and the war was very important to his growth and development. Blunden, for all that he steps in and out of the moment, acknowledging the centrality of retrospection to any memoir, is an observer throughout. His poetic responsibility to, above all, observe what is happening around him is never forgotten.
So Blunden is a keen observer, but he’s a better writer. Part of the appeal of Undertones of War is the quality of the prose–we are never far from poetry, and indeed Blunden included contemporary poems with the memoir. But more important, perhaps, is its persistent gentleness.
We begin innocent–of course we begin innocent!–yet not eager. The first sentence of the book is “I was not anxious to go.” When we go along with Blunden, then, we come somehow to sense that if we follow our guide–never angry, never rash, never unkind–we will be alright. There will, again, be horrible things–of course there will be horrible things!–but they will fall to the left of us, and the right. We will be there, we feel, not for glory or sacrifice or the shock of seeing our guide’s cocoon of innocence rent by some searing fragment of experience, but to observe through him, and to endure, to bear witness and to politely resist another sort of undertone that can be heard in almost all war memoirs: the one that says “be fearful, be awed, for this will change you irrevocably.”
I want to write on… but there will be opportunities, and rather than indulging in further prefatory rambles I should include a good chunk of the memoir. So, then, a few basics: Blunden does not include dates, and therefore his book, like so many of the best memoirs, is not as easy to use here as a diary or a collection of letters would be. But he doesn’t fictionalize or change names, either and–bravo Sussex!–the war diary of his battalion is available online, so I will periodically be able to connect something in the memoir to a particular day’s experience.
As for Blunden himself, not much needs be said: he is young, and a poet. At Christ’s Hospital, he was a top scholar–the “Senior Grecian”–and a cricketer more enthusiastic than excellent. Not yet eighteen at the outbreak of the war, he volunteered immediately after finishing school in the spring of 1915, and was commissioned into the Royal Sussex Regiment. When he sat down to write, he omitted virtually all of his first year in uniform and chose to begin the memoir only a few weeks back, replacing the standard biographical introduction with a few brief impressions.
These were carefully chosen: there is a long walk in the beautiful English countryside with a group of convalescent soldiers under his command; an old officer’s gift of a “pocket testament” which “went with me always, mainly unconsulted,” a pointed breaking-off of the standard farewell-to-mother scene at Victoria Station, and then his first encounter with veteran officers:
a lugubriously merry Highlander and a sturdy Engineer, to whom I had democratically appealed for help on some matter, who were themselves returning to the British Expeditionary Force next morning, asked me my age. I replied; and, discipline failing, the Scotchman murmured to himself, “Only a boy — only a boy,” and shed tears, while his mate grunted an angry sympathy.
Blunden is nineteen. His disillusion begins–gently–as soon as he reaches Étaples, now the most enormous of the British bases in France. Blunden places his officer’s cane–“the ebony walking-stick which had been my grandfather’s, and was to be my pilgrim’s staff”–on his valise and, in an inattentive moment, it is stolen. The war has begun to attack his innocent trust in his fellow man before it gets him within miles of the trenches.
So, dear reader, you know what happens next. At some point in ApriI, while being instructed in the Étaples Bull-Ring, a Highland sergeant is lecturing on the proper use of the rifle-grenade…
According to my unsoldierlike habit, I had let the other students press near the instructor, and was listlessly standing on the skirts of the meeting, thinking of something else, when the sergeant major having just said, “I’ve been down here since 1914, and never had an accident,” there was a strange hideous clang. Several voices cried out; I found myself stretched on the floor, looking upward in the delusion that the grenade had been fired straight above and was about to fall among us. It had indeed been fired, but had burst by some error at the muzzle of the rifle: the instructor was lying with mangled head, dead, and others lay near him, also bloodmasked, dead and alive. So ended that morning’s work on the Bull Ring.
With the second chapter of Undertones–entitled “Trench Education”–we arrive at today, a century back, when the battalion war diary of the 11th Sussex notes that 2nd Lieuts. Blunden and Doogan joined.
Although May had come, the day was dull and the clouds trailed sadly. In the hooded cart, we sat listening to the strong Sussex of the driver and looking out on the cultivated fields and the colonnades of trim trees. Here, said the transport man, turning a corner, a night or two before the Germans had dropped several very large shells, almost on top of the quartermaster and his horse. Blew his horse one-sided. This information sat heavily on me…
The cart soon drops our hero in “rustic Le Touret.”
In the farm we found the Quartermaster, Swain, talking with the padre. It was a cool, shady, swept and garnished interior in which Swain first came into our view, a man whose warmth of heart often cheers me in these later times–a plain, brave, affectionate man. Swain had come from Canada to the battalion, his hair already gone gray, his cheeks bright, and his eyes gleaming purpose. I well remember him crossing the flagged floor of the rustic parlour to welcome and accustom two boys. He did it well, for he had a boyish readiness about him such as gave confidence–and he knew what danger was and what duty was. Fear he respected, and he exemplified self-conquest. Swain told us that the Colonel wished us to go up to the battalion in the front line that evening “with the rations.” He gave us tea. He gave us anecdotes, even rallying the padre on a visit to a romantic bookshop in Bethune. The howitzer loosing off occasionally outside punctuated the amenities. The padre, a Catholic, selected Doogan as his affinity, Doogan also being a Catholic, and I felt that he repulsed me.
Here we get our first frame-breaking apostrophe, a relatively rare occurrence in Blunden:
Speak, any relic of honesty that may be in Blunden–was it not this slight and natural inequality, at this time, which caused you afterward to spread satirical parodies of the padre’s voice, remarks, and habits?
Soon we are back into relatively gentle irony. Blunden’s trench education goes quickly to the fact that aren’t really trenches in this sector at all:
…F. Prior, whose reputation was that of dryness and common sense… objected to the line. It was not a line at all, he said. I put in something about “trenches?” “Trenches be damned,” he said; “look here, I went up the road to the front line two nights ago and had to lie in the ditch every two minutes. There’s only one road and Fritz puts machine guns on it through the night. Same on the duckboard track. Lend us your note-book.”
We have been here before, with George Coppard, on Christmas Eve.
The Sketch on Page Ten
He drew a sketch something like the one on page 10. So the scattered breastwork posts called the Islands were our front line: no communication trench sheltered the approach to them. What, at this stage of the war? Yes, shamelessly. But, the newspapers had said —— F. Prior told us to expect nothing, and went his way.
Before we meet the men of Blunden’s new company we must meet the dangers of his new environment. No one puts this better:
In the shallow ditch outside that Le Touret farm, among the black mud now nearly dry, were to be seen a variety of old grenades brown with rust. I looked at them with suspicion; and later on, returning on some errand, I saw them again. Why did no one see to it that these relics were duly destroyed? For that same summer they brought death to some idle Tommy whose curiosity led him to disturb the heap, seeming safe because of its antiquity. This was a characteristic of the war—its long arm reaching for its victim at its pleasure.
Blunden and Doogan now follow the rations up to the line:
With this ration party Doogan and I went awkwardly up the tram lines, often helping to push the trolleys which fell off their wooden railway now and then. “Wind favourable for whizzbangs?” said someone in the dark. It was both profoundly dark and still. In the afternoon, looking eastward from Le Touret, I had seen nothing but green fields and plumy gray-green trees and intervening tall roofs; it was as though in this part the line could only be a trifling interruption of a happy landscape. Now at night, following a trolley along a track which needed watching, I as yet made out little more about the fighting man’s zone, except the occasional lights flying and snooping on the east horizon. When at last the trolleys were at their terminus, and Doogan and myself went with a guide to find the battalion headquarters several furious insectlike zips went past my ear, and slowly enough I connected these noises with the loud hollow popping of rifles ahead, and knew that the fear of my infancy, to be among flying bullets, was now realized. The sense of being exposed now suddenly predominated.
We crossed a narrow wooden bridge, and II came under the shelter of a sandbag rampart, which to eyes striving through the darkness appeared vast and safe. Battalion headquarters was in this rampart, the Old British Line. It was a simple little cave, with a plain table and candlelight, and earth walls concealed with canvas. In it sat the commanding officer, W. L. Grisewood, dark-eyed and thoughtful, his brother, F. Grisewood, and his adjutant, T. Wallace. A somewhat severe air prevailed and not much was said, except that the Colonel was glad to see us, remarking that we were the first officer reinforcements to reach the 11th Royal Sussex.
Blunden has now arrived–is it such a long journey, after all?
Doogan was sent to A Company, I believe, then in the front trench; and I, luckier, as I felt, to C Company in the Old British Line, along which a guide soon led me on a greasy wooden track past sentries and strings of men with shovels and other burdens. The dugout in which C Company officers were was smaller and blacker and much more humane than those where the dark-eyed Grisewood and austere Wallace sat. I had, of course, more introductions at once. In charge of C Company was the boyish Captain Penruddock, perhaps one and twenty years old, rosy-faced, slender, argumentative. Second in command, Edmond Xavier Kapp appeared, ready with drawings and Joe Miller jokes not unworthy of his reputation as a satirical artist. Charlwood, inclined to stammer, who as I soon found out had played cricket for Sussex, and Limbery-Buse, the “Lumbering Bus,” who did stammer, made up the headquarters. These I saw in the dugout. Soon I was given a large enamel plate full of meat and vegetable rations, and not long after Penruddock told me to “get down to it.” At this early stage unused to going without sleep, I felt very weary, and gladly crawled into a kind of low recess in the dugout, where with sandbags below, above, around, and my British Warm coat, it was easy to sleep, and sleep deeply, too.