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Edmund Blunden: The bondservice of destruction


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

Edmund Blunden: Writings on war


Edmund Blunden
From Undertones of War

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 but for a few moments, that the war would claim them, that the war was a jealous war and a long-lasting. 1914, 1915, 1916….Occasionally I would ask the silly questions of nonrealization; they in their tolerance pardoned, smiled, and hinted, knowing that I was learning, and should not escape the full lesson.


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.


The Base! dismal tents, 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 but a few minutes- it went. But this was before the war was officially making the world safe for democracy.


Was it on this visit to Étaples 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 sunny slopes opposite Lancing. I never saw them again; they were hurried once more, fast as corks on a millstream, 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 training ground. The machine guns there thudded at their targets, for the benefit of those who had advanced against such furies, equally with beginners like me. 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 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.

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