Edmund Blunden: Undertones of War

September 20, 2013

51H9+zbjGiL._AA160_I brought this with me to re-read as I tour the Somme battlefields. It’s a memoir by someone who served, and it has become clearer to me just how different a memoir is from a fictional exploration of events. For instance, Blunden saw many horrific sights; he mentions them and you can see how he is affected, though he doesn’t write about them in detail (undertones…), whereas Faulks (to take a novelist as an example) wasn’t at the front, but researched his material very carefully. And Faulks offers us graphic description of death, maiming, injury…

Partly I think Blunden’s sometimes laconic descriptions are to spare himself as much as his readers, yet that also feels like a simplistic and patronising response. Somehow the weariness of war, and the meaninglessness of it all, are enhanced by his hands-off approach. And yet I feel him there, at the Somme, and at Ypres, losing friends and colleagues in the blinking of an eye, and accepting (?) moving on because survival is paramount.

I still find this the best of the war memoirs, preferring it to Graves and Sassoon. I like the way he uses language to describe what is around him, what he sees and the attitudes of others: he is an excellent observer who leaves the commentating to his reader. The picture of war as chaos and confusion in all directions, with no idea what is really going on, certainly no sense of one side or the other ‘winning’, is sobering; he is surrounded by pointless movement, by death and destruction, and so, through his words, are we.

He is aware that he owes his survival (many times) to chance. And we gained from this, for Blunden edited what was for years the definitive edition of Wilfred Owen‘s poems.

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