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Edmund Blunden: Initiation into war

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

British writers on peace and war

Edmund Blunden: Writings on war

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Edmund Blunden
From Undertones of War

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 onesided. 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.

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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.

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At some points in the trench bones pierced through their shallow burial and skulls appeared like mushrooms.

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One of the first things that I was asked in C Company dugout was, “Got any peace talk?” It was a
rhetorical question. One of the first ideas that established themselves in my inquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the endlessness of the war. No one appeared to conceive any end to it. I soon knew that Day succeeded unto day, Night to pensive night.

Such as it was, the Old British Line at Festubert had the appearance of great age and perpetuity; its weather-beaten sandbag wall was already venerable. It shared the past with the defences of Troy. The skulls which spades disturbed about it were in a manner coeval with those of the most distant wars; there is little but remoteness about a skull. And, as for the future, one of the first hints that came home to me was implied in a machine-gun emplacement stubbornly built in brick and cement, as one might build a house.

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The old trench lay silent and formidable, a broad gully, like a rough sunk lane rather than a firing trench. It was strewn with remains and pitiful evidences. The whole region of Festubert, being marshy and undrainable, smelled ill enough, but this trench was peculiar in that way. I cared little to stop in the soft drying mud at the bottom of it; I saw old uniforms and a great many bones. One uniform identified a German officer; the skeleton seemed less coherent than most, and an unexploded shell lay on the edge of the fragments. What an age since 1914!

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The shortened, diminished cough of anti-aircraft shells often came down from the blue morning sky, and it was fashionable to stand watching and counting up the waste of public money on the part of our “Archies” shell by shell, the rumoured cost of these shells being then half a guinea. Sometimes this cynical accountancy was brought to an end as the air round us began to buzz and drone with falling fragments; large and jagged shards of steel would plunge murderously into the sandbags, and one discreetly got into the dugout.

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