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Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

Undertones of War (1928)

by Edmund Blunden

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This is a war memoir written by a man with an eye to the natural world. He views the landscape with the eye of someone who can see its potential and how it is ruined and abused causes him almost as much pain as the death of those around him. At times this focus on the natural means that the impact of the war is barely noticeable. Blunden participated in some of the major battles of WW1, and these are described in a very sparse, understated way. At times the horror creeps up on you as it is certainly not overt in the style of writing he adopts. In the introduction it is noted that this can be difficult for the later reader, in that this was almost written with those who were there in mind, not for posterity. We have not experienced anything like what these men went through, and so the gulf between our imagination and their reality is hard to bridge.
It feels wrong to say I enjoyed this based on the subject matter, however I certainly enjoyed his style of observational writing. ( )
  Helenliz | Sep 9, 2018 |
Undertones of War is one of the best known books to emerge from the First World War. Perhaps this is because [a:Blunden|31139|Edmund Blunden|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1335026460p2/31139.jpg] beat [a:Graves|3012988|Robert Graves|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1251049332p2/3012988.jpg] and [a:Remarque|4116|Erich Maria Remarque|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1207351165p2/4116.jpg] to the punch by a year. It is difficult to believe that the exalted position of this rambling, overly fastidious book, owes much to its merits. You come away from this book with little idea of what the war was actually like.

In Britain much of what is generally believed about the First World War comes from the poems, plays, novels, and memoirs it produced (the latter categories indistinguishable in some cases). Particularly, it is from these, and the horribly self-serving [b:War Memoirs|14628906|War Memoirs; Volume I, Part 1|David Lloyd George|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347520561s/14628906.jpg|20273876] of [a:Lloyd George|1278911|David Lloyd George|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/m_50x66-82093808bca726cb3249a493fbd3bd0f.png], that the Lions Led by Donkeys interpretation finds its primary evidence.

But while there is much griping about particular regimental officers, there is little of that on display here. There are some harsh words about Third Ypres and it is true that the battle took a heavy toll on British morale. But was Blunden, when writing this criticism, aware of the mutinous state of the French Army? Of the advanced state of collapse of the Russian Army? Of the fact that the battle was little less of an ordeal for its German combatants?

It also worth noting that, like Graves's much superior book, Undertones of War cuts off well before the end of the war - in early 1918. While the experiences of the Somme and Third Ypres are covered at length, the action of 1918 - when the Allied armies won the war - is completely missing. This goes a long way towards explaining why these books give the impression of futility. There is no similar treatment in literature of the battle of Amiens. The men who were there at the war's end in 1918 wrote no memoirs or novels.

Blunden's book is of interest for the student of World War One but, like all these books, their personal focus should always be balanced with a strategic overview. ( )
  JohnPhelan | Oct 4, 2016 |
Of the three classic memoirs of World War 1 by British writers, Blunden's was the most impressionistic, and yet at the same time he describes the most forceful and particular images of the horrors of war. His language and eye are most often pastoral: although he writes that he cannot ride a horse well, he observes the transport mules and horses lined up in life and death several times and writes with equal empathy about the massacres of animals and humans. This memoir has left a deep impression of the horror of trench warfare with me. ( )
  nmele | Apr 11, 2016 |
One of the soldier-poets along with Sassoon, Graves, Brooke and Jones. He fought hard and won the Military Cross. He came out of the war with both physical and mental wounds. He did, however, end up living a full life.
  bowlees | Mar 10, 2016 |
A slippery, allusive memoir of the Western Front which resists easy appreciation nowadays – many of its cool ironies and oblique descriptions are, one suspects, aimed more at contemporaries who knew what he was talking about than at future generations struggling to work it out. So, although Blunden was involved in two of the most horrific and iconic encounters of the British war, the Somme and Passchendaele, the overriding impression from this book is of a pastoralist taking note of the changing seasons, the ruined details of village life, songbirds heard at stand-to, fish shoaling in the rivers, light banter between soldiers. On the evidence of this book alone, you'd be forgiven at times for thinking that Third Ypres was an altercation of angry farmers; and when, laconically describing a direct hit on his dugout, Blunden passes over the wounded to note especially the presence of three confused fieldmice at the entranceway, you feel you are getting the essence of the writer.

Already a keen poet when he signed up, Blunden adopts a prose style that is inches away from verse; too often, though, its mannered archaisms get in the way of felt authenticity, at least for a modern reader – at least for me, anyway. Recalling an old farmhouse he stayed in behind the line, for instance, Blunden is moved to this kind of thing:

Peaceful little one, standest thou yet? cool nook, earthly paradisal cupboard with leaf-green light to see poetry by, I fear much that 1918 was the ruin of thee. For my refreshment, one night's sound sleep, I'll call thee friend, ‘not inanimate’…

This ‘not inanimate’ business is a nod to John Clare's ‘The Fallen Elm’, and the whole text is shot through with similar echoes, a few identified, but most, as here, not (though at least here the inverted commas are a clue to flex your memory and/or your Google-fu). At times the references are so strong that he simply delegates to other artists, noting of the trees in No-Man's-Land that their description can be found in Dante, and saying of the trenches at Ypres only that ‘John Nash has drawn this bad dream with exactitude’.

Blunden's effects do often come together well, and at its best this memoir conveys much of the normalcy of trench life that is skipped over by other writers; he gives fascinating little details which I've not seen elsewhere, such as that the ‘smell of the German dugouts was peculiar to them, heavy and clothy’. Still, if you want a referential, poetic reminiscence of the First World War, I'd generally prefer David Jones's even-more-crazily-allusive [book:In Parenthesis|428945], which come to think of it perhaps owes something to Blunden – Blunden, like Jones, sometimes connects the war with wars of legend and history, noting for example that the Old British Line at Festubert ‘shared the past with the defences of Troy’. This is very Jonesian.

And despite the floweriness of some passages, it's the simple lines that get to you. There's a moment near the end, after nearly two years of bucolic Belgian melancholy and ‘sacrificial misery’, when, with companions dropping dead during a gas attack at Zillebeke—

I suddenly remembered, here, that midnight had passed, and this was my twenty-first birthday. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Jan 4, 2016 |
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It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.
Articles of the Church of England No.xxxvii
Yea, how they set themselves in battle-array
I shall remember to my dying day.
John Bunyan
Dedicated to Philip Tomlinson
Wishing him a lasting peace and myself his companionship in Peace or War
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I was not anxious to go.
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Book description
Classic autobiography of the poet Edmund Blunden's devastating experiences in World War I, including the battles of the Somme, Ypres, and Passchendaele.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141184361, Paperback)

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as 'murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes'. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden's poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:50 -0400)

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