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Edmund Blunden: War tableaux

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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

[We] gained another artist of quality, who drew the best portrait of Francis Thompson. This was Neville Lytton. Tall, of a fine carriage, his outward and physical appearance expressing an intellect rather than a body, he at once attracted me. He was outspoken in his loathing of war, he did not rely on his rank to cover all points of argument or action, and his gallantry in going through the dirtiness, the abnegations of service, the attack upon all his refinement, was great. It naturally remained unrecognized by the crasser part of the officers and men.

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The cause, of which I remained innocent, was that the Colonel had been ordered to make a raid at once on that point. The word “raid” may be defined as the one in the whole vocabulary which most instantly caused a sinking feeling in the stomach of ordinary mortals. Colonel Grisewood was confronted with the command to attack some part of the enemy’s line, here fortified with the keenest intelligence, the thickest wire and emplacements, in the dark and without any preparation. Not unnaturally, he was worried. What came of this is told by Neville Lytton in his war memoirs: Grisewood demurred, was disposed of, and another battalion was forced to lose the lives which ignorance and arrogance cost.

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Brothers should not join the same battalion. When I was at the place where some of the wounded had been collected under the best shelter to be found, I was struck deep by the misery of a boy, whom I knew and liked well; he was half crying, half exhorting over a stretcher whence came the brave but weakened voice of his brother, wounded almost to death, waiting his turn to be carried down. What I could say was little; but a known voice perhaps conveyed some comfort in the inhuman night which covered us. In this battalion, brothers had frequently enlisted together; the effect was too surely a culmination of suffering….

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Who that had been there for but a few hours could ever forget the strange spirit and mad lineaments of Cuinchy? A mining sector, as this was, never wholly lost the sense of hovering horror. That day I arrived in it the shimmering arising heat blurred the scene, but a trouble was at once discernible, if indescribable, also rising from the ground. Over Coldstream Lane, the chief communication trench, deep red poppies, blue and white cornflowers, and darnel thronged the way to destruction; the yellow cabbage flowers thickened here and there in sickening brilliance. Giant thistles made a thicket beyond. Then the ground became torn and vile, the poisonous breath of fresh explosions skulked all about, and the mud which choked the narrow passages stank as one pulled through it, and through the twisted, disused wires running mysteriously onward. Much lime was wanted at Cuinchy, and that had its ill savour and often its horrible meaning.

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I went along three firebays; one shell burst behind me;Isawits smoke faint out, and thought all was as lucky as it should be. Soon a cry from that place recalled me; the shell had burst all wrong. Its butting impression was black and stinking in the parados where three minutes ago the lance-corporal’s mess tin was bubbling over a little flame. For him, how could the gobbets of blackening flesh, the earth wall sotted with blood, with flesh, the eye under the duckboard, the pulpy bone be the only answer?

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