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Undertones of War
By Edmund Blunden
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1928 Edmund Blunden,
All rights reserved.
The Path without Primroses
I was not anxious to go. An uncertain but unceasing disquiet had been upon me, and when, returning to the officers' mess at Shoreham Camp one Sunday evening, I read the notice that I was under orders for France, I did not hide my feelings. Berry, a subaltern of my set, who was also named for the draft, might pipe to me, 'Hi, Blunden, we're going out: have a drink'; I could not dance. There was something about France in those days which looked to me, despite all journalistic enchanters, to be dangerous. For a fortnight or so I had been in charge of a squad of men nominally recovered from wounds and awaiting their next transmigration. It had been my happiness to march them out to a place at once as sequestered and sunny as I could find, overlooking the lazy Adur, and there to let them bask on the grass, and tell their tales, and be peaceful. How contentedly they had rested in the lucky sun! Nor was much said among them – their thoughts were their conversation. In that brief fortnight I began to love these convalescent soldiers, and their distinguishing demeanour sank into me. They hid what daily grew plain enough – the knowledge that the war had released them only for a few moments, that the war would reclaim them, that the war was a jealous war and long-lasting. 1914, 1915, 1916 ... Occasionally I would ask the silly questions of non-realization; they in their tolerance pardoned, smiled and hinted, knowing that I was learning, and should not escape the full lesson.
Such formalities as were attached to a temporary second lieutenant's departure for the front no doubt took place on Monday morning, but I have forgotten them. The adjutant, warranted by expert observers to have been previously a commercial traveller, though I did not think his heavy gleamless manner supported that theory, smiled sourly, and inwardly congratulated himself on having four fewer unnecessary officers. (There were still about 150 to dispose of.) The commanding officer, a timid fragile man, gave me (as his way was) a pocket Testament bound in green suede, with coloured pictures. It went with me always, mainly unconsulted; it survives. I took myself off to Framfield, home, and all too soon it came out why. Walks and depredations round the glebelands, and stolen fishing at Heaver's Mill, and Sunday service with its acceptable display of amusing human peculiarity – all faded from my head, and my brothers and sisters allowed a melancholy hue to steal upon their mood. The builder's daughter too showed signs of emotion, under the evening star.
My mother went to the station with me, between pride and revolt – but the war must be attended to. Next, let us remark the platforms of Victoria, on this occasion perceptibly more remarkable to me than hitherto. That evening, 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. Then, 'But you'll be all right, son – excuse me, won't you? – you'll be all right!' They were discussing the diminished prospect of a bombardment of Lille when I withdrew.
Light does not gleam upon the immediately following journey; surely I shall recall, from that crisis of my life above all, the evanescence of England beyond the grey waves, and the imminence of France. Surely the usual submarine excitement, and avoidance of the captain selecting victims for duties, marked the crossing. Something about an hotel, and manful drinks, and going down to the saloon for a plate of ham, and meeting a school-fellow pensively returning to the line, and then the cloak-room at Boulogne Station, flutters dimly for elucidation; there was a train journey between verdurous banks and silvering poplars, ending drearily at Etaples, known as Eatapples or Heeltaps. The Base! dismal tents, huge wooden warehouses, glum roadways, prisoning wire. I took my share of a tent, trying to remember the way to freedom, and laid on my valise the ebony walking-stick which had been my grandfather's, and was to be my pilgrim's staff. It went. I was away from it only a few minutes – it went. But this was before the war was officially certified to be making the world safe for democracy.
Was it on this visit to Etaples that some of us explored the church – a fishing-village church – and took tea comfortably in an inn? Those tendernesses ought not to come, however dimly, in my notions of Etaples. I associate it, as millions do, with 'The Bull-Ring,' that thirsty, savage, interminable training-ground. Marching up to it, in the tail of a long column, I was surprised by shouts from another long column dustily marching the other way: and there, sad-smiling, waving hands and welcoming, were two or three of the convalescent squad who had been so briefly mine on the April slopes opposite Lancing. I never saw them again; they were hurried once more, fast as corks on a mill-stream, without complaint into the bondservice of destruction. Thinking of them, and the pleasant chance of their calling to me, and the evil quickness with which their wounds had been made no defence against a new immolation, I found myself on the sandy, tented training-ground. The machineguns there thudded at their targets, for the benefit of those who had advanced through wire entanglements against such furies equally with beginners like myself. And then the sunny morning was darkly interrupted. Rifle-grenade instruction began. A Highland sergeant-major stood magnificently before us, with the brass brutality called a Hales rifle-grenade in his hand. He explained the piece, fingering the wind-vane with easy assurance; then stooping to the fixed rifle, he prepared to shoot the grenade by way of demonstration. 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 upwards in the delusion that the grenade had been fired straight above and was about to fall among us. It had indeed been fired, but by some error had burst at the muzzle of the rifle: the instructor was lying with mangled head, dead, and others lay near him, also blood-masked, dead and alive. So ended that morning's work on the Bull-Ring.
This particular shock, together with the general dreariness of the great camp, produced in me (in spite of the fear with which I had come into France) a wish to be sent quickly to the line. The wish was answered the next afternoon or thereabouts. I hear now the tink-tink-tink of the signal bell, the thin insistent cry Abbéville, Abbéville, through the dark; but many train journeys made later in that curious country have with their rumbling wheels and jerking, banging trucks drowned the self-story of that first one. At last we were unloaded at Béthune, many young officers and bulging valises; it was morning, a staff officer or two walked and illumined the platform. That sinister war was not far off, and air seemed to communicate without noise or any definite instance; but I looked along the railway track going on eastwards, and saw how high the grass and weeds had grown between certain of the metals. Orders were given me: with my excellent companion Doogan, a plump, ironical, unscareable Irishman, and others, I was to travel by light railway to Locon, a place of which the newspapers had not spoken. Meanwhile, Doogan decided that we must have coffee before setting out again, and he had led the way into a shop outside the station, and with little or no French caused two cheerful cups to appear, when there was shouting outside, and across the cobbled square the little street-train for Locon was on the instant of departing.
Locon is a few miles north of Béthune. Many times afterwards did the blush come to my cheeks as I recalled my asking a sapper, on this first approach, whether things were very noisy at Locon. In truth it was not a long way behind the trenches, but those trenches were a 'rest sector,' and peace prevailed much nearer their barbed wire and rusty tins than Locon. The steam-car rattled on. 'Are we anywhere near Manchester?' shouted a Tommy to a peasant on the track. We presently alighted in a muddy country road, alongside a green ditch and a row of short willow-stubs, looked for our valises in the heap, and then were haled to a kind of loft, the Brigade office, to be told our further proceeding. 'Report at le Touret.' The battalion mess-cart was coming to carry us.CHAPTER 2
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, explained 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 roar of a heavy battery, soon following, also troubled me, for as yet I did not know that sound from the crash of arriving shells. "Tis only some 'eavies our party brought up yesterday.' The heavy battery was firing at the German area over the farmhouse, chickens, children and all, which ended this stage of our progress. Rustic le Touret was apparently making no such heavy weather of the war. In the farm we found the Quartermaster, Swain, and 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 grey, his cheeks bright, and his eyes gleaming purpose. I well remember him crossing the flagged floor of the farmer's 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 boot-shop in Béthune. The howitzer occasionally loosing off outside punctuated these amenities. The Padre, a Catholic, selected Doogan as his affinity, Doogan also being a Catholic, and I felt that he repulsed me. Speak, any relic of honesty that may be in Blunden – was it not this slight and natural inequality, at this time, which caused you afterwards to spread satirical parodies of the Padre's voice, remarks and habits? Walking up and down the road after tea, the new-comers fell in with friends who had been until lately in training with them. One of these, who came into view at the entrance to a YMCA canteen, was a doubtful blessing; he was noted for hairy raggedness and the desire to borrow a little money; he now appeared stumping along as though with a millstone about his neck, and, questioned, did not comfort us. The line was hell, he said, and flung his arms heavenwards as some explosions dully shook the silence. It was a likely description with him. In the huts at Shoreham, months before, he had been wont to quote soulfully the wild-west verses of Robert Service, then read by thousands, cantering rhetoric about huskies and hoboes on icy trails; at length he had said, with the modest yet authoritative tone suitable to such a disclosure, 'I AM – Robert Service.' Some believed. He never retreated from the claim; we heard it again in France; and the poor fellow was at last killed at Richebourg on June 30th in a hell more sardonic and sunnily devilish than ten thousand Robert Services could evolve, or wolves and grizzlies inhabit.
The other acquaintance was F. Prior, whose reputation was that of dryness and common sense. He, too, 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 notebook.' He drew a sketch something like this (see page 9). 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 newspaper correspondents? F. Prior told us to expect nothing, and went his ways.
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, tumbled in with tin cans and broken harness. 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 sauntering Tommy whose curiosity led him to disturb the heap, seeming safe because of its antiquity. This was a characteristic of the war – that long talon reaching for its victim at its pleasure.
When dark had fallen, 'the rations' went up, a jolting, clattering series of waggons and limbers; Doogan and myself crept along somewhere in the middle, with the mules behind us nosing forward in a kindly manner, as if wishing to impart some experience to the novices. It seemed a great way, but it cannot have been so, before this column, passing cellars from which lights yellowed through chinks hung with canvas or blankets, halted. The rations were unloaded and packed in trolleys waiting at the edge of a field by several soldiers who had met the transport there with a bantering exchange of family remarks and criticism. 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.
It was both profoundly dark and still. In the afternoon, looking eastward from le Touret, I had seen nothing but green fields and plumy grey-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. I thought, the Vicarage must lie among those sheltering boughs. 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 on a curve and sinking away on the horizon. When at last the trolleys were at their terminus, and Doogan and myself went with a guide to report to battalion headquarters, several furious insect-like zips went past my ear, and slowly enough I connected these noises with 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 suddenly predominated. We crossed a narrow wooden bridge, and came under the shelter of a sandbank 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, H. J. 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. Of Colonel Grisewood, I cannot add much, for I seldom rose to the eminence of conversation with him. Once, presently, as we marched back to billets, he corrected me for carrying an untrimmed and sizeable stick which I had found in the line, ordering me to respect society and 'get an ash plant.' He was very grave and conscientious; there is an admiring view of him in Neville Lytton's The Press and the General Staff.
Doogan was sent to A Company, I believe, then in the front trench; and luckier I, as I felt, to C Company in the Old British Line, along which on a greasy wooden track a guide soon led me past solemn 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 that where the dark-eyed Grisewoods 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 scribbles and charcoal drawings 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. A call, 'Mess,' produced a young soldier like Mr Pickwick's Fat Boy in khaki, who went away (humming 'Everybody calls me Teddy') with his orders, and soon I was given a large enamel plate full of meat and vegetable rations; 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.
Excerpted from Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden. Copyright © 1928 Edmund Blunden,. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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