Fall in, Ghosts

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Edmund Blunden moved among the ghosts of the Great War every day of his long life, having survived the battles of Ypres and the Somme. His classic prose memoir, Undertones of War, and his early edition of Wilfred Owen’s poems were just two examples of the ways in which he sought to convey his war experience and to keep faith with his comrades in arms. His poetry is suffused by this experience, and he was haunted by it throughout his writing life, as the men with whom he had served gradually joined the ranks of the departed. This selection of Blunden’s prose about the First World War includes the complete text of “De Bello Germanico,” his first, lively sketch of the war as he lived it in 1916. Deeply informed by his reading of 18th- and 19th-century literature, and equally by his knowledge of the countryside, Blunden’s vivid prose summons up for us what was human and natural in that most unnatural of environments, the battlefields of the Western Front.

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Timeline of Blunden’s War

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TIMELINE OF BLUNDEN’S WAR

Not all of the Battalion’s movements are recorded here; the broad outline is adapted from the detailed one provided by

Martin Chown in his companion guide to Undertones of War, with his kind permission.

August 1915–April 1916

In training camps at Weymouth, Shoreham; near Cork. To

Boulogne, a day’s training at Etaples and then up the line. At this period the British held the front line from Ypres to the Somme, and the 11th Sussex were about halfway between the two.

May 1916

9th, from Béthune to Le Touret; 14th, relieved 13th Royal Sussex at Festubert; 28th, ordered to front line at Cuinchy; EB to threeday gas school at Essars.

June 1916

11th, relieved by Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, returned to

Hingette; 16th, to Croix Barbée, north of Richebourg; 28th, relieved by Cambridgeshires, to Richebourg.

July 1916

1st, relieved to Lacouture orchards; 7th, relieved 4th King’s

Liverpools at Auchy-les-Mines for about a week, then back to Le

Touret; 20th, holding Ferme du Bois line; 24th, holding Festubert breastworks; 29th, relieved to Le Touret and then Béthune.

 

Map: The Western Front, 1916–18

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De Bello Germanico

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DE BELLO GERMANICO

The Publisher’s Preface

The following manuscript having come into my possession,

I decided to make it the opening number in my present

Publishing experiment.

I feel certain that those who have read and still treasure

Undertones of War will enjoy the reading and possession of

De Bello Germanico. The Author of Undertones refers to this manuscript in his introduction to that publication as if it ought not to have been written, but those who read it will find that such is not the case. Since 1918 it has slept with cobwebs and dust, and meanwhile the Author went to

Japan and there wrote Undertones. But writing a new book does not mean that you can alter facts, and so we find

Undertones and De Bello Germanico in complete understanding with each other. While Undertones has the mellowness of time and experience, this older story gives more attention to the very small detail which a young soldier was sure to notice, and indeed made his day and night. How many soldiers would not march fifteen miles rather than attend one General’s Inspection, or wish for the Front Line rather than rest and training?

 

War and Peace

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WAR AND PEACE

H

ow mysterious that after so many years, not inactive, not undramatic, nor passed without much delight and discovery in man and nature, I find myself frequently living over again moments of experience on the Western

Front. The war itself with its desperate drudgery is not the predominant part of these memories – I need a more intense word than memories; it is Nature as then disclosed by fits and starts, as then most luckily encountered ‘in spite of sorrow’, that so occupies me still. The mind suddenly yields to simple visions. Pale light striking through clouds in shafts, like the sunrays of Rembrandt, beyond the mute and destined tower of Mesnil, continues inextinguishably to lure me. The ramping weeds in their homespun fringing the chalky road to grim Beaumont Hamel seem to be within my reach. The waterfowl in the Ancre pools and reed-beds exchange their clanking monosyllables with an aerial clearness, as though there were no others in the ten years between. I think to pick up the rosy-cheeked apples fallen in the deserted, leaf-dappled, grassy gunpits in the orchards of Hamel. And then some word from my companion calls me to lose no more time with our bombboxes on the menacing village road.

 

Aftertones

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AFTERTONES

T

he summer of 1918 drifted past with its eddies of intrigue and dispute and rumour in the camp and the world beyond. It was a camp among ancestral trees, copses, meadows, cornfields bubbling with poppies, windmills on their little heights of goat-grazed turf; besides, the sky was blue and the air southern; yet I screen my eyes from that summer. The delight of being away from France after almost two years of ruins and ever-spreading terror was not itself wholly good; youth, now certain of a short time to live, through some magic dispensation of the War Office, did strange things in a world which it had never had the time to study. Moved by some instinct of spiritual pride, I no sooner arrived in the camp for my six months’ respite than I wrote – I ‘had the honour to submit’ – my application to be allowed to return to France, where such unpleasant German manœuvres were proceeding. The application received no answer, except amused comment from an old major before dinner. I waited a week, then repeated my appeal with more eloquence. This time the

 

The Somme Still Flows

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THE SOMME STILL FLOWS

I

t was a sunny morning, that of July 1st, 1916. The right notes for it would have been the singing of blackbirds and the ringing of the blacksmith’s anvil. But, as the world soon knew, the music of that sunny morning was the guns.

They had never spoken before with so huge a voice. Their sound crossed the sea. In Southdown villages the schoolchildren sat wondering at that incessant drumming and the rattling of the windows. That night an even greater anxiety than usual forbade wives and mothers to sleep. The Battle of the Somme had begun.

This battle on the southern part of the British line overshadowed everything else. Even Ypres fell quiet. The three nations most prominently concerned on the Western Front concentrated their force in the once serene farmlands of

Picardy. Their armies had arrived at a wonderful pitch of physical and spiritual strength. They were great organizations of athletes, willing to attempt any test that might be ordered. If the men of the Somme were probably unrivalled by any earlier armies, the materials and preparations of the battle were not less extraordinary. Railways, roads, motor transport, mules, water supply, aircraft, guns, mortars, wire, grenades, timber, rations, camps, telegraphic systems – all multiplied as in some absurd vision. Many of you who are reading now still feel the fever of that gathering typhoon.

 

We Went to Ypres

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WE WENT TO YPRES looked south-east out of the bedroom window, which was lofty, but approachable by means of a kind of firestep. Those were the hills that knew so much. That would be Verbrandenmolen, with a new windmill. From the railway cutting past Hill Sixty, puffs of steam rose in white clouds and thinned away. It was a suspicious appearance, in that particular spot – but it really meant nothing unkind.

Southward, Mount Kemmel was green almost as in the days before the bonfire of 1918, and I thought I could make out the toy observatory among the trees. Summer’s evening light was over all the place; not casting its splendours, but, as I would have had it, veiled in soft rainy warmth.

Nearer, below, was the railway station of Ypres, a humble structure which no one would have mistaken for a town hall. I had never stepped from a train there until this evening. Indeed I had only seen two or three ration-trains in this city; they used to occur, without lights, beside an old timber-dump on the west side. They amazed us, first by arriving, and then by getting away. But here was the correct, authorized, official station doing its duty. Nothing strange, of course, to see young clerks, schoolgirls, soldiers on furlough, market-dames emerging past a ticket-collector into a cobbled Place. But I found it a little strange.

 

The Extra Turn

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THE EXTRA TURN

G.,

in a moment of weary activity, has repaired the primitive neglected gramophone which, I remember, he resolutely carried home and demobilized from the Western Front. It is precisely similar to one which was a friend of ours in 1916, on the edges of that battle of the Somme which was so unfavourable to gramophones and their owners. As soon as he produced the specimen from his perpetual salvage dump, I knew that there would be trouble; and when he had succeeded in making it rehearse a few pieces – Beethoven’s ‘Minuet’, the ‘Largo’,

Pierné’s ‘Serenade’ seemed inevitably to come forward – the trouble was in full flood. But G., who has no real passion for antiquity, then compelled his machine to be comparatively modern, and we heard the loud, hot, joyful lyric of the ‘King’s Horses, and Men’ –

They’re not out to fight the foe,

You might think so, but O dear no!

They’re here because they’ve got to go

To put a little pep into the Lord Mayor’s Show.

I left them at it; I had been called to a distance where the

 

Fall In, Ghosts

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FALL IN, GHOSTS

An Essay on a Battalion Reunion

Alonzo. Captain!

Martino.

I am glad to kiss

Your valiant hand, and yours; but pray you, take notice,

My title’s changed, I am a colonel.

Pisano. A Colonel! where’s your regiment?

Martino.

Not raised yet;

All the old ones are cashier’d, and we are now

To have a new militia: all is peace here,

Yet I hold my title still, as many do,

That never saw an enemy.

Massinger’s Bashful Lover

T

he battalion had halted in the light shade of the line of poplars, which began to look a little unkempt aloft.

Rifles had been piled into the usual little pyramids, men had seated themselves on their heavy packs, except the cooks and others with immediate duties. The cooks had lost no time. Their fires already breathed blue spires of smoke into the calm but subtle sky. Beneath that sky, two empires were at war. One village further to the east, and you would have seen the furrowings and burnings of that dismay on the face of the land. Here there was not such obvious evidence. The big grey house with deep white window-sills at the turn of the field path, the farm with its square-set sheds and stalls among other poplars, the crucifix surmounting the steps of granite in the middle of the rootfields, the clean causeway, the trickling land-drain under the culvert did not report the imminence of an enemy. On a closer inspection, it would have occurred to you that some

 

A Battalion History

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A BATTALION HISTORY

(with apologies)

T

he Southdown Battalions’ Association dines annually at the Brighton Aquarium, doubtless startling the regular inhabitants with its boisterous cheerfulness. At the last dinner something occurred which also startled me. It was publicly proposed, and so far as I could observe it was generally demanded, that I should write the history of one at least of these Southdown Battalions. In a spirit of mingled cowardice and devotion to duty I found myself rising to accept this ‘onerous honour’ (the evening was far advanced); and I now present my old friends with something which nominally tallies with their request.

Unfortunately it is shorter than they expected, but the war was also shorter than they expected.

The 11th Royal Sussex Regiment, otherwise the First

Southdowns, otherwise Lowther’s Lambs (and of course the Iron Regiment), being composed principally of Sussex men, was formed at the outset of the war, but was not sent overseas until March, 1916. On March 5th the battalion landed at Havre. A week later, in the usual fashion of that period, it left billets in Morbecque for trenches at Fleurbaix, in which it received instruction from the Yorks and

 

Infantryman Passes By

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INFANTRYMAN PASSES BY

I

I

n the early months of 1914 I was very little concerned with world affairs, except that my mother used sometimes to caution us under the rubric ‘when you go out into the world’ which we told her meant at the moment the small market town 2 or 3 miles off. The scene of her repeated admonition was the schoolhouse in a very small village in Sussex, in the south of England, within comfortable reach – by bicycle – of the seacoast and above all the enchantments of ‘London by the Sea’, Brighton. Heroic expeditions to that city with all its huge hotels and piers and fashion parades along the seafront were sometimes managed, but my leadership could only be infrequent and while I was on holiday from my school.

The school was in the same county of Sussex and also inland, about as far away from the sea as our village, and that geographical detail used to matter in one’s feelings. It is strange now to think what a distance lay between the schoolhouse and the English Channel in a sense of security

 

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