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Edmund Blunden: Death could not kneel

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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

Near by was a pit, the result of much sandbag filling; among its broken spades and empty tins I found a pair of boots still containing someone’s feet.

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When next morning’s sun gilded even the barbed wire I looked in early at my store dugout to decide how many duckboards were needed to refill it. The sun gleamed through the crannies there on the unutterably mangled heads and half-naked bloody bodies of some poor fellows, victims of the minenwerfer bombardment, who had been carried there to await burial.

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Outside, on a kind of gallows, hangs a churchbell, beautifully dark green, and the gift of some fantastic ancient “seigneur de Mailly” – so its fair engraved inscription boasts. Perhaps he would not be wholly indignant if he knew that it was being used (as another chalk inscription on it advises) as a gas alarm; doubtless he intended it for the good of humanity.

The heart of the village is masked with its hedges and orchards from almost all ground observation. That heart, nevertheless, still bleeds. The old homes are razed to the ground; all but one or two, which play involuntary tricks upon probability, balancing themselves like mad acrobats. One has been knocked out in such a way that its roof, almost uninjured, has dropped over its broken body like a tea cosy. The church maintains a kind of conceptional shape and has a cliff-like beauty in the sunlight; but as at this ecclesiastical corner visitors are sometimes killed we may, in general, allow distance to lend enchantment.

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It was Geoffrey Salter speaking out firmly in the darkness. Stuff Trench – this was Stuff Trench; three feet deep, corpses under foot, corpses on the parapet. He told us, while still shell after shell slipped in crescendo wailing into the vibrating ground, that his brother had been killed, and he had buried him; Doogan had been wounded, gone downstairs into one of the dugout shafts after hours of sweat, and a shell had come downstairs to finish him….

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In spite of the sylvan intricacies (a trifle damaged) of Thiepval Wood, and a bedroom in the corridored chalk bank, and the tunes of the “Bing Boys” endlessly revolved, one was not yet quite clear of Stuff Trench; my own unwelcome but persistent retrospect was the shell hole there used by us as a latrine, with those two flattened German bodies in it, tallowfaced and dirty-stubbled, one spectacled, with fingers hooking the handle of a bomb; and others had much worse to remember.

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It was now approaching the beginning of November, and the days were melancholy and the colour of clay. We took over that deathtrap known as the Schwaben Redoubt, the way to which lay through the fallen fortress of Thiepval. One had heard the worst accounts of the place, and they were true. Crossing the Ancre again at Black Horse Bridge, one went up through the scanty skeleton houses of Authuille, and climbing the dirty little road over the steep bank, one immediately entered the land of despair. Bodies, bodies and their useless gear heaped the gross waste ground; the slimy road was soon only a mud track which passed a whitish tumulus of ruin with lurking entrances, some spikes that had been pine trees, a bricked cellar or two, then died out. The village pond, so blue on the map, had completely disappeared. The Ligne de Pommiers had been grubbed up. The shell holes were mostly small lakes of what was no doubt merely rusty water, but had a red and foul semblance of blood. Paths glistened weakly from tenable point to point. Of the dead, one was conspicuous. He was a Scotch soldier, and was kneeling, facing east, so that one could scarcely credit death in him; he was seen at some little distance from the usual tracks, and no one had much time in Thiepval just then for sightseeing or burying. Death could not kneel so, I thought, and approaching I ascertained with a sudden shrivelling of spirit that Death could and did.

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