FALL IN, GHOSTS
powerful tension between the need to communicate – imperative, because otherwise the dead were betrayed – and the impossibility of the ‘civilised’ sensibility finding a way to describe the war. Authors ranging from Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence and Henry James to Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Freud are summoned by the critic Randall Stevenson to attest to the ‘unspeakable’ nature of the war. He quotes from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem ‘Talking with Five Thousand People in Edinburgh’, where MacDiarmid castigates teachers, ministers and writers for living off a decomposed vocabulary, ‘Big words that died over twenty years ago/ – For most of the important words were killed in the First World War’.13 In De Bello, Blunden downplays with his choice of noun one aspect of front-line existence: ‘The great defect of war here as elsewhere was the shortage of sleep…’, whereas at about the same point in the narrative of Undertones, he elaborates, looking back on this ‘profound tiredness’ to compare it with the battalion’s feeling in 1918, ‘almost mad for sleep’ under the German offensive Blunden had escaped:
Imagine their message; they will never open their mouths, unless perhaps one hour, when the hooded shape comes to call them away, they lift from the lips of their extremest age a terrible complaint and courage, in phrases sounding to the bystanders like the ‘drums and tramplings’ of a mad dream. (Undertones, p. 34)14
And if the vocabulary for this experience were to be found, would the public want to read such accounts? Ford Madox Ford remarked presciently in 1915: ‘Everyone will want to forget it – it will be bad form to mention it.’15 When Blunden refers to the ‘unnerved’ state of the country, perhaps he means this lack of willingness to learn and feel what the war had been like for the combatants, and this attitude, too, must have dissuaded him from continuing his account. De Bello ends, appropriately enough, with a dog left behind, ‘the very image of misery’.