Monday, December 25, 2017

`Down From the Hell of the Line'

“Now winter, throwing aside his sleep and drowse, came out fierce and determined: first there was a heavy snow, then the blue sky of hard frost.”

For a displaced Northerner, the passage stirs nostalgia, thoughts of night walks, each step a crunch, the snow blue and still. Edmund Blunden is describing the Western Front, December 1916, after two years of slaughter, in his memoir Undertones of War (1928). He goes on: “To our pleasure, we were back in a camp in the woods by Elverdinghe [Belgium], to celebrate Christmas.”

While a scholarship student at Queen’s College, Oxford, Blunden volunteered for the Army in 1915. He joined the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment and saw combat at Festubert, Cuinchy and Givenchy, and later at the Somme, Ancre Valley and Thiepval. He was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry in action.” Blunden and a runner survived a reconnaissance patrol under constant shelling. Late in 1916 his battalion transferred to the Ypres Salient. He remained stationed there during the Battle of Passchendaele until January 1918, when his unit returned to the Somme.  He left the Army February 1919, having served in combat longer than any of the other Great War poets. The passage in Undertones of War continues:

“The snow was crystal-clean, the trees filigreed and golden. It was a place that retained its boorish loneliness, though hundred were there . . . After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day, and the Colonel visited all the men at their Christmas dinner. At each hut, he was required by tradition to perfect the joy of his stalwarts by drinking some specially and cunningly provided liquid, varying with each company, and `in a mug.’ He got round, but it was almost as much intrepidity could accomplish.”

One year later, in December 1917, he wrote the poem “Christmas in Sight of Ypres,” in which the closing iambs, “the men who come down from the hell of the line,” is discordantly catchy and almost singable.  

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