In Festubert

Now every thing that shadowy thought
Lets peer with bedlam eyes at me
From alley-ways and thoroughfares
Of cynic and ill memory
Lifts a gaunt head, sullenly stares,
Shuns me as a child has shunned
A whizzing dragon-fly that daps
Above his muddied pond.

Now bitter frosts, muffling the morn

In old days, crunch the grass anew;
There where the floods made fields forlorn
The glinzy ice grows thicker through.
The pollards glower like mummies when
Thieves break into a pyramid,
Inscrutable as those dead men
With painted mask and balm-cloth hid;

And all the old delight is curses

Redoubling present undelight,
Splinter, crystal, splinter and burst;
And sear no more with second sight.

Edmund Blunden (1896 - 1974)

Born in London, Edmund Blunden authored many a poem during World War I and it was the literary editor of The Daily Herald Siegfried Sassoon who recognized his abilities and encouraged him with a letter establishing their life long friendship. His work remains obscure to a certain degree today since he labored under the shadow of, and even edited some of the work of the more well known Wilfred Owen.

Perhaps the most unusual quality of Blunden's war poetry is that he acknowledged that even amidst the senseless slaughter there could be, and were, moments of contrasting beauty. Most of his work revolves around the countryside of England and while serving in the Royal Sussex Regiment at twenty years old it was in May 1915 when he made his way to the trenches at Festubert. A village in northern France, the ground was marshy preventing the digging of deep trenches so a series of grouse butts (islands) were built above ground but since they were constructed of sandbags the security they gave was dismal at best. The pollard s he refers to in the second stanza were trees cut back for the purposes of allowing renewed growth, but here it was the work of artillery. Festubert was destroyed in a fierce battle between Germans and an allied force of British, Canadians and Indians. The Festubert attack was launched by Sir Douglas Haig on the evening of May 15th. They made rapid progress initially forcing the German Sixth Army to retreat to lines just in front of the village. The attack continued for twelve days with the British having suffered some 16,000 casualties. In due time the battalion moved south to Givenchy and Cuinchy on the La Bassee Canal.

James Porter was a miner from Accrington in Lancashire who served as private and lance-corporal kept a soldiers dairy that depicts his great bravery, good-humored relations with fellow soldiers and respect for junior officers, but contempt for military formalities. He was sent into the trenches at Festubert and journals about his experience several months later on December 19th describing what it was like for him In Festuburt:

    . . . not trenches but breast work sandbagged up and divided into Islands 8 men on each there being 16 of these Islands.

    We had to take two days rations in with us, which proved fatal for us, for Mr. Rat invited Mrs. Rat and all their little ones, to a nice feed and after they had finished their first meal, there was not much for us, so we had to go hungry next day, but the bit of cheese they did leave proved fatal for them, for we used it as bait on the end of our bayonets, then they would go for the cheese, and we just pulled the trigger and Mr. Rat was dead.

    We left here on the 1st Dec. for Givenchy. We went in the trenches there on the 3rd December about 5 pm, and the following morning the Germans blew up a mine right under our sap (dug-out), making all our platoon casualties except four of us, who had rolled in the mud which was about two foot deep, leaving us like mud men. We had to smile when we saw each other covered in mud, and looking round towards the German trench, what should meet our eye but a nice-sized German standing with his arms folded and his hair as black as jet parted in the middle. There he was laughing at us.

    So Capt. Woodhouse says, `Porter, can you throw a bomb?'
    I said, `Yes, Sir.'
    So he said, `Put these in your mitt', at the same time giving me a few Mills no. 5, and taking a few himself led the way down towards the sap, me following close behind him.
    He said, `Let's see if we cannot move that square faced creature up there', meaning of course the German.
    You might say what about your rifles but that was out of the question for our rifles were as bad as we were, covered with mud. So we threw out bombs and made the Boche move his standings, only to come back with a bomb and throw it at Capt. Woodhouse, and would have blown him to bits but I called him away just as it exploded. So we went back for some more bombs and this time we moved him and he never came back again. So we returned to our trench victorious.

    Time rolled on that day and I was called as orderly to an Officer, so the first thing I had to (do) was to show this officer up to the front line, where we had had the exciting time early in the morning. It would now be about 6 pm. When I was leading him up the trench, I came across a working party of R.E.'s and when I caught up to the rear man of this party he calmly turned round, loaded his rifle and would have fired at my Officer, but I was in time. I caught hold of the rifle and took it from him, but he turned round and got hold of another and loaded it and pointed to the Officer again and I stopped him again and asked him what he was doing. He said that the corporal behind me had been nagging at them all the way up the trench but when I told him it was my officer he apologised to the Officer saying that he thought it was the Corporal.

    That night we spent running up and down these trenches full of water and mud and dead men, and parts of dead men, legs and arms floating about the water, which had been caused by the mine early in the previous morning . . . At 10.30 am we were relieved by the 9th Royal Fusiliers. We went back to the village of Givenchy where we had our Christmas dinner, corned beef stew and plum pudding, which ran out at one teaspoonful per man, there being one basin of pudding for thirty men.

    What hopes! Tommy in the firing line gets his plum pudding. Anyway we was all very pleased to be out of those trenches, if only for a few hours.

It is remarkable to see and think of what it may have been like for these two men, comrades as writers in arms. While Porter's acceptance of the immediacy of death and the dead, and the meager Christmas rations, contrasts well with the background presented by Edward Blunden, I have more than a suspicion that Blunden is not conversing me as the reader at all, but with the presence not visible. With pastoral warning he addresses the unseen over my shoulder, and amusement fades when his fancy chills it. At once an appearance of a cozy conversation becomes disturbingly intangible. Uneasily as I persist in trying to find out what he has secreted in the blank spaces; what he might be overhearing, by chance, allusive but exciting reminiscences by men out of sight. There is loveliness in the narrative of dragon flies skipping about on the surface of the water while for a moment by the light of a star-shell I can glimpse with him the horrific sight of dead men

With painted mask and balm-cloth hid

They stare dead eyed only as true soldiers can who endure the worst inflictions upon them mute, saying no words both create a name magic splinter, crystal, splinter and burst and plum pudding memorable at Christmastime in Festubert.


The Battle of Festubert, 1915:

Blair, Bob:

Edmund Blunden at War:

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

Reactions to war:

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