Undertones of War
by Edmund Blunden
Folio Society, 1989
For Blunden, nature had a consoling beauty; human nature is part of nature. As a result, Blunden's memoir is less grimly realistic than Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That. Paul Fussell has noted in The Great War and Modern Memory that Blunden's writing is characterized by archaism, both in language and landscape. Blunden's focus is on pre-industrial England. This is also true of his poetry. "Festubert: The Old German Line," where he describes the violence endured by man and nature, is a case in point: "Sparse mists of moonlight hurt our eyes/With gouged and scourged uncertainties/Of soul and soil in agonies." A selection of Blunden's poetry is to be found at the end of the Folio Society and University of Chicago editions of Undertones of War.
I know that memory has her little ways, and by now she has concealed precisely that look, that word, that coincidence of nature without and nature within which I long to remember. . . I must go over the ground again. A voice, perhaps not my own, answers within me. You will be going over the ground again, it says, until that hour when agony's clawed face softens the smilingness of a young spring day.
Blunden soon realized that war was endless: "no one here appeared to conceive any end to it," he writes. He expresses relief that he is an officer and can thus "plough [his] way back to the black hole under the Brickstack, and there imitate sleep with no greater defect than that of rats running over me." For private soldiers, however, long hours of huddling on the fire-step in the pouring rain awaited and there was "nothing but hope and a mackintosh sheet between them and the descent of minenwerfer shells."
Typically, however, Blunden also notes that "not all hours were poisonous. The summer afternoon sometimes stole past unmolested." His descriptions in Chapter Eight, "The Calm," of Lacouture and Cuinchy are almost idyllic and include such evocative phrases as "drowsy summer's yellow haze." Chapter Fifteen, "Theatre of War," however, tells the other and more obvious side of the story. The front line, for example, is described as "crude and inhuman," the cold is "foul" and the threat of ambush ever present.
|Column of German Prisoners, Including Wounded, at the Somme, 1916|
Now to attune my soul if I can
To the contentment of this countryside,
Where man is not for ever killing man
But quiet days and quiet waters glide.
As time passes, Blunden increasingly sought the friendship of kindred spirits who, through art, could transcend the horror of war. In Chapter Twenty-five, for example, he describes Worley, a sketcher. It is with clear affection that Blunden writes, "He showed these drawings to very few persons, to me most, for he believed I knew about such matters. I loved him for this new expression of a simple but profound trust." The famous final sentence of Undertones of War reads:
No conjecture that, in a few weeks, Buir-sur-Ancre would appear much the same as the cataclysmal railway cutting by Hill 60, came from that innocent greenwood. No destined anguish lifted its snaky head to poison a harmless young shepherd in a soldier's coat.
Throughout the horrors, Blunden remained a poetic "shepherd." He was never a soldier at heart. He survived the war, left the army in 1919, and took up the scholarship to Oxford that he had won while still at school. A writer and countryman at heart, Blunden loathed war; at the same time, it was also the source of some of his most important works, including Undertones of War. The Folio Society edition contains not only the earlier mentioned poems but also the memoir that is the foundation of Undertones of War, namely De Bello Germanico, written directly after the war but never finished. Undertones of War is the story of a survivor who, remarkably, managed to retain the qualities of a shepherd amidst the unprecedented horrors of modern warfare. Blunden died in 1974.
Jane Mattisson Ekstam