Earlier this year, I undertook the Extended Project Qualification and, since I adore the history of World War One, I decided to research the year 1917 in my local area of Suffolk.
With the Passchendaele commemorations beginning, I'm so glad I embarked on this project as it has allowed me to connect with a time exactly 100 years ago. Amongst a whole range of intriguing facts I discovered that Edmund Blunden, a famous WWI poet, retired to Long Melford in Suffolk - a village just down the road from where I live. As you can imagine, I began reading his poems instantly. They are magical.
Edmund was born in 1896 and wrote poetry even before he enlisted to fight overseas in 1916. He had won a scholarship at Oxford University to read Classics but, like many prospective students during the war years, Blunden decided to do his duty instead.
He fought during the Battle of Passchendaele, and since the commemorations have been particularly poignant in the last few days, I have been reading his poem Third Ypres.
To me, Third Ypres speaks less of the battle and fighting, but more the long-lasting wait to go into battle and the draining misery that accompanies it. As the poem continues, Blunden seems to grow more comfortable in describing war's terror. He explicitly conveys Passchendaele's renowned weather, in the lines:
The second night steals through the shrouding rain.
We in our numb thought crouching long have lost
The mockery triumph, and in every runner
Have urged the mind's eye see the triumph to come,
The sweet relief, the straggling out of hell
Into whatever burrows may be given
For life's recall.
The nostalgia present in the majority of WWI poetry struck me deeply. It's a lingering sorrow that is evident in Third Ypres and, although he occasionally touches on the violence, Blunden largely focuses on the clamouring emotions the land around him heralds. He manages to convey the change in the Belgian fields, how farmers used to call the earth their own, and how it was now a wreck of shell-holes.
Dizzy we pass the mule-strewn track where once
The ploughman whistled as he loosed his team;
And where he turned home-hungry on the road,
The leaning pollard marks us hungrier turning,
We crawl to save the remnant who have torn
Back from the tentacled wire, those whom no shell
Has charred into black carcasses -- Relief!
After the war ended in 1918, Blunden retired from active service and continued his career as a scholar and writer. After a successful career, he lived in Long Melford for the last ten years of his life. Blunden was buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity after he died in 1974.
Although he returned from war as a young man, he continued to be harrowed by memories throughout the rest of his life. Like other war survivors, Blunden suffered from what became known as PTSD. However, he has now become one of the most famous war poets, especially Undertones of War, a prose piece recording his experiences in the war.
To me, whilst the centenary of Passchendaele is being celebrated, Blunden commemorates a war both international and personal. Third Ypres is a masterpiece.
- Read more from Third Ypres on the University of Oxford First World War Poetry Digital Archive
- Image, Edmund Blunden's grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Suffolk, courtesy of Flickr/Michael Day