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Edmund Blunden: War’s harvest


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

British writers on peace and war

Edmund Blunden: Writings on war


Edmund Blunden
Rural Economy

There was winter in those woods
And still it was July:
There were Thule solitudes
With thousands huddling nigh;
There the fox had left his den,
The scraped holes hid not stoats but men.

To these woods the rumour teemed
Of peace five miles away;
In sight, hills hovered, houses gleamed
Where last perhaps we lay
Till the cockerels bawled bright morning and
The hours of life slipped the slack hand.

In sight, life’s farms sent forth their gear,
Here rakes and ploughs lay still,
Yet, save some curious clods, all here
Was raked and ploughed with a will.
The sower was the ploughman too,
And iron seeds broadcast he threw.

What husbandry could outdo this?
With flesh and blood he fed
The planted iron that nought amiss
Grew thick and swift and red.
And in a night though ne’er so cold
Those acres bristled a hundredfold.

Nay, even the wood as well as field
This thoughtful farmer knew
Could be reduced to plough and tilled,
And if he planned, he’d do;
The field and wood, all bone-fed loam,
Shot up a roaring harvest home.

From Undertones of War

Night was streaked and dissected with searchlight beams, but the raiding went on thoroughly, turning the area in which troops rest into a floor of Hades. As for the forward area, from the glimpses which I had of it, no unstable invention of dreams could be more dizzily dreadful. Taking up the rations used to be almost a laughing matter – not so now. Merely to find the way through the multiplying tracks and desperate obliteration of local identity would have been a problem; to get horses and vehicles through, in the foundering night of dazzling wildfire and sweltering darkness, with shells coming and going in enormous shocks and gnashing ferocity, to the ration or working party crouching by some old shelter, was the problem….A view of Spoil Bank under these conditions is in my mind’s eye – a hump of slimy soil, with low lurching frames of dugouts seen in some too gaudy glare;a swelling pool of dirty water beside it, among many pools not so big – the record shell hole; tree spikes, shells of wagons, bony spokes forking upward; lightnings east and west of it, dingy splashes; drivers on their seats, looking straight onward; gunners with electric torches finding their way; infantry silhouettes and shadows bowed and laden, and the plank road, tilted, breached, blocked, still stretching ahead. The plank road was at once the salvation and the slaughterhouse of the forward area in this battle. To leave it was to plunge into a swamp; to remain on it was to pass through accurate and ruthless shell fire. Spoil Bank was generally crowded with men and animals.


Never (to our judgment) had such shelling fallen upon us. For what reason? The Germans had clearly no idea of letting the British advance any farther along the Menin Road. Their guns of all calibres poured their fury into our small area. Reports of casualties were the principal messages from the front line, and we had no reason to think them exaggerated, with such a perpetual rain of shells. The trenches immediately about our pillboxes were already full of bodies. One man in my headquarters died of shock from a huge shell striking just outside. We endeavoured to send off a pigeon, but the pigeon scared by the gunfire found his way into the dugout again, and presently a noise under the floorboards led to his discovery. The men thought that many shells struck the pillbox. The only question seemed to be when one would pierce it, and make an end.


During this period my indebtedness to an Eighteenth Century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read in Young‘s Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice, speaking often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.


We also went to a lecture by a war correspondent, who invited questions, whereon a swarthy old colonel rose and said: “The other day I was obliged to take part in a battle. I afterward read a war correspondent’s account of the battle, which proved to me that I hadn’t been there at all. Will the lecturer explain that, please?”


Let me look out again from the train on the way to England. We travel humbly and happily over battlefields already become historic, bewildering solitudes over which the weeds are waving in the mild moon, houseless regions where still there are lengths of trenches twisting in and out, woods like confused ship masts where amateur soldiers, so many of them, accepted death in lieu of war-time wages; at last we come to the old villages from which the battle of 1916 was begun, still rising in mutilation and in liberation.

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