FALL IN, GHOSTS
essence [… but Ford’s] subject was not war but the people, the people war produced’.
Landscape was central to Blunden’s perception by upbringing, and was reinforced by literature, but what the war gave him was experience of a vast range of people, and he felt very keenly his duty to them. He tended not to describe the body, simply – there is no hint of homoeroticism in his work – but the body in motion and as it expressed the spirit, in gesture and in speech. In De Bello he uses initials, having no permission to do otherwise; in Undertones he uses names: this is their memorial. Randall Stevenson suggests that the names of people and places gave a kind of solidity to experience, something to hold on to; yet the names of places were two-edged. Blunden shows this in ‘Trench Nomenclature’, at first with relish, and then with a terrible dismay: ‘Genius named them, as I live! What but genius could compress / In a title what man’s humour said to man’s supreme distress? […] Ah, such names and apparitions! name on name! what’s in a name? / From the fabled vase the genie in his cloud of horror came.’
Describing damage to place was a way of conveying the juxtaposition remarked on by every war writer: the endurance, even the loveliness of nature – of culture, sometimes, where farmland survived – and the denaturing force of constant bombardment, of the endless movement of men and machines. Blunden’s essay ‘War and Peace’ is a concentrated evocation of ‘Nature as then disclosed in fits and starts’, prologue to the epic drama. It has the density of poetry, adjectives working hard: ‘our restless camps’ – both always packing up and re-settling, and in themselves providing scant rest for the men; ‘the dark unfruiting clay’ – nothing grows in it, of course, but later readers hear an echo of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’: ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’; ‘snow untidily tenanted’ by old soldiers; the ‘streaming hazels’ in a storm. This was written in Japan, ‘And if this winter is not contrary to the last, I shall often seem to be in Flanders…’.
Undertones ends with Blunden’s departure from the