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Edmund Blunden: One needed no occult gift to notice the shadow of death


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

Beyond the area called Thiepval on the map a trench called St. Martin’s Lane led forward; unhappy he who got into it! It was blasted out into a shapeless gully by intense bombardment, and pools of mortar-like mud filled most of it. A few duckboards lay half submerged along the parapet, and these were perforce used by our companies, and ferociously shelled at moments by the enemy. The wooden track ended, and then the men fought their way on through the gluey morass, until not one or two were reduced to tears and impotent wild cries to God. They were not yet at the worst of their duty, for the Schwaben Redoubt was an almost obliterated cocoon of trenches in which mud, and death, and life were much the same thing – and there the deep dugouts, which faced the German guns, were cancerous with torn bodies, and to pass an entrance was to gulp poison; in one place a corpse had apparently been thrust in to stop up a doorway’s dangerous displacement, and an arm swung stupidly. Men of the next battalion were found in mud up to the armpits, and their fate was not spoken of; those who found them could not get them out.


But it is time to return from these abysmal peregrinations to the world up aloft, where still in outlying pits a minenwerfer or two (without its team) thrusts up its steel mouth toward the old British line, where the ration party uses the “dry places” in the mud – those bemired carcasses which have not yet ceased to serve “the great adventure” – and the passer-by hates the plosh of the whizzing fuse-top into the much worse than the fierce darts of the shrapnel itself….


The best bridge, No. 4, was a ferocious target, but at the Ypres end the new solid crossing was swollen with dead mules tipped on the wayside. The water below, foul yellow and brown, was strewn with full-sized eels, bream, and jack, seething and bulged in death. Gases of several kinds oozed from the crumbled banks and shapeless ditches, souring the air. One needed no occult gift to notice the shadow of death on the bread and cheese in one’s hand, on the discoloured tepid water in one’s bottle.


Running along another of the new plank roads, uncertain where it led, we beheld in the sickening brightness a column of artillery wagons, noiseless, smashed, capsized, the remains of mules and drivers sprawling among the wreckage.


The order presented no great intellectual difficulty, for the reduced battalion merely had to rise from its water holes, plod through the mud of an already beaten track, and fill other holes. Darkness clammy and complete, save for the flames of shells, masked that movement, but one stunted willow tree at which the track changed direction must haunt the memories of some of us. Trees in this battlefield are already described by Dante.


On my leave, I remember principally observing the large decay of lively bright love of country, the crystallization of dull civilian hatred on the basis of “the last drop of blood”; the fact that the German air raids had almost persuaded my London friends that London was the sole battle front; the illusion that the British army beyond Ypres was going from success to success; the ration system. Perhaps the ration system weighed most upon us. This was not the ancient reward of the warrior! He had never had a sugar-card in Marlborough’s wars, or even 1916.


Another shell, bursting on a small party of noncommissioned officers as they were about to leave the trenches after relief, robbed us instantly of Sergeant Clifford, a man of similar sweetness of character and for months past invaluable in all necessities. These losses I felt, but with a sensibility blurred by the general grossness of the war. The uselessness of the offensive, the contrast in the quality of ourselves with the quality of the year before, the conviction that the civilian population realized nothing of our state, the rarity of thought, the growing intensity and sweep of destructive forces – these views brought on a mood of selfishness. We should all die, presumably, round Ypres.

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