on 8 February 2009
I have tried numerous times to read Undertones of War, and given up each time as i became frustrated by what i percieved as difficult language and a rambling narrative. But finally, at aged 35 i read my Grandfather's book, and it finally all clicked into place. The humour, the understated horror, his warmth, humanity and love for his fellow soldiers shine through the text. I found i couldnt put it down. I think it is a brilliant account of what must have been a living hell, especially given his age- he was 19 when he went to France, and celebrated his 21st in a trench. Keep on trying if you find UOW difficult, because ultimately it is a magnificent read, as is his poetry. You just cant read it in a hurry. It may not be easy reading like Robert Graves or some of Sasson's poetry but stick with it. Blunden's work is a bit like an onion- lots of layers, that need to be peeled back and absorbed slowly to get the true flavour. Enjoy it- i did in the end!
on 10 September 2000
While writing a first-hand war diary must be tantamount to aspiring to express the inexpressible, the decade Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War took in the making bought him time to distance himself from the numbing impact of the Great War events demanding to be exorcised.
The book offers an understated account of the events that gripped the minds of Blunden and his beloved 11th Royal Sussex Regt., taking the reader from the build-up to the Battle of the Somme and on to Third Ypres and Passchendaele, campaigns which left the party shattered morally and badly depleted for size. The overall experience at the time was beyond the comprehension of a single human being, the more so as Blunden (barely 20) was too young to deal with, let alone, put into prespective, the depths and cruelty of events as he witnessed them. The combined effect of a cathartic ten years' time and Blunden's mildness and humanity of temperament has only added to the merits of a book which, to this day, has been, and deserves to remain, a long-standing classic.
As perfection is not of this world, Blunden's inclination towards quoting from his literary predecessors might be considered a minor flaw. Likewise, the critical reader might feel mildly irritated at the pastoral tone and evocative detail with which the author intersperses his account. Anyone will, however, agree that in no way has Blunden sought to embellish his experiences, but perceive that, in the face of devastation, he merely set out to find comfort in the permanence of forms and shapes to go by, as well as to pinpoint solidarity and camaraderie as beacons along their dark ways. The latter can be derived from Blunden's dedication of the books to some of his pals, whether dead or alive at the time.
"It is time to hint to a new age what your value, what your love was; your Ypres is gone, and you are gone; we were lucky to see you 'in the pink' against white-ribbed and socket-eyed despair.": how appropriate a description of a near-perfect book, the universality of whose message remains unimpaired. As a tribute to the ordinary soldier in too great a war, Undertones of War is more eloquent than any Menin Gates or Passchendaele Tyne Cot Cemeteries could ever aspire to be.
on 7 August 2000
How rightly did UOW deserve, as it did, for its first edition (in 1928) to be sold out in merely one day. To be true, Blunden stands out as one of the youngest and most dedicated soldier poets ever to testify to the shattering Great War experience they lived through. While no reader of Undertones will escape being moved by the sheer poignancy of Blunden's statement, one will likewise be struck by his consistently understated style (convenient to the aspiration implied in the title, to perceive the "undertone") as well as by a distinct inclination towards the pastoral. In so doing, the infantry subaltern must have sought to avoid being gulped down altogether by the turmoil of the battles of the Somme, in the Ypres Salient and at Passchendaele. Apart from a penchant for the continuing beauty of Nature, the comradeship for the brothers-in-arms provides the kind of emotional refuge that young Blunden must have been so badly in need of (as, indeed, any other soldier) , if only to survive the estrangement brought along by war, as well as to cope with the indelible emotional scar it left him with till his dying day. Looking back on his time in Ypres, the author extends his generous sympathy for an unnamed fellow-soldier. "Your Ypres is gone, and you are gone. (...)", Blunden reminisces, "It is time to hint to a new age what your value, what your love was". Nearly eighty years on, how appropriately do these words sum up the profound value of a book, which so rightly deserves its qualification as established classic! From our unholy holy region of Flanders Fields, which Blunden described with such depth of affection, we share his message of hope of better things to come.
on 14 March 2010
After reading Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger this was a good follow up for the same type of literature. Blunden's literary style at first seems a bit strange to a 21st century reader, but it is worth persevering if you know you really want to read this type of book. This book and others like it are becoming ever more valuable historic narratives now the Great War is passing from living memory.
'Understones' is miles away from the usual sort of WW1 literature,in so much as the horror and terror of that seemingly endless conflict are often implied or suggested, but never described in way designed to shock or revolt. Blunden allows the reader to imagine the feelings of the men who have lost a comrade,the tension before 'going over the top' or the nerve jangling sensations of being under fire.In this way, the experience of reading this book becomes ever more immersive, the further one penetrates. It's power lies in understatement.
Blunden writes with a flowing,restrained style,with a poetic undertow that throws up powerful images and a sense of real connection with the scenes he is depicting.Here is an account of trench life written by an artist,who just happened to be a solider.What is clear though that despite his misgivings of the war, he did his duty by his men and his superiors.He did not allow his finer feelings lead him to despair or dither.It was his love of poetry and affection for those in his charge, not to say a deal of luck that saw him through.He could always imagine a world outside of the trenches,keeping him sane and in balance. His bravery and competency was not of the showy sort.Like his prose, his character could only be fully appreciated by close examination and long acquaintance.
The book ends on an anti-climax,almost. Blunden finishes his tour of duty and is sent away from the front for a softer posting. We get the feeling that many men must have felt the same: the comradeship fashioned by warfare suddenly gone leaving only memories and injury.'Undertones' is a great read and any student of WW1 and the war poets would do well to get it.
As eyewitness accounts go, this is an odd one. Written in the "Disenchantment" years between the wars; when many veterans railed against the way the war was fought, or why the the war was fought, or what the world had failed to become afterwards; this is a much gentler book than most other first hand accounts.
Blunden, unfairly, is probably not as well known a war poet as Sassoon, or Graves, or the unfortunate Owen. A shame, because he is every bit as good. His prose in this book is lyrical to the point of being poetical, his descriptions evocative, his criticisms rare & mostly oblique. Included, by the author, at the end of the book are some 40 pages of his poems. As he explains in his foreword, this is deliberate; a different way of expressing & explaining some of the things he experienced.
You'll find this a very different book to any other veterans' first-hand account, and certainly very different from any modern compilation of eyewitness experiences. You'll also find it well worth your time.
on 10 October 2014
Over many decades this book has been described as ‘difficult’ to read. The reasons vary and initially, I too had difficulty with sudden and apparently random changes in sentence structure (hence tempo) and violent changes of imagery.
It was when I realised that such passages were encountered principally in Blunden’s recollections of set-piece battles that I started to understand what he was trying to do and how effectively he had, in fact, done it. He has used the techniques of poets and composers to unsettle and sow confusion in his readers’ minds, which gets them to think about and sense (as far as that is possible) not just the sequence of events in any given attack (again as far as Blunden could see them), but also the feelings of ordinary soldiers and subalterns caught up in such Western Front battles – fear and confusion being predominant. Thus sudden shocks, random images, (within a sentence a blade of grass here, a piece of shrapnel there), an overwhelming sense of not being in control of one’s fate, are all reflected not just in words but in the structure of Blunden’s prose.
A different technique is used when a completely unexpected disaster befalls his subjects. A quiet passage describing what seems to be safe dug-out domesticity continues on its way even after a shell kills a number of the occupants. No punctuation or change of rhythm heralds the arrival of the shell, no crescendo or heightening of tension, just the fact. One has to go back to the beginning of the sentence to make sure one has truly understood what has just happened, and the shock is all the greater when one realises one has. Casual reference is made to a horse that is spotted behind German lines by British artillery which then kills it, menace being lent to the pointless cruelty by the smooth flow of the prose.
The writing is not perfect; elegiac passages, chiefly relating to the French countryside and his love of ancient books and churches are sometimes marred by highly obscure literary or historical references, which the editors have correctly surmised require a glossary at the front of the book. On such occasions one gets the sense that Blunden is more concerned with conveying the depth of his scholarship than enhancing his narrative – but such diversions are rare.
And should not divert one from the conclusion that this is a memorable piece of prose/poetry, the like of which I have not come across before, save possible in Yeates’ semi-autobiographical ‘Winged Victory’. I think it is interesting that both books were written around twelve years after the Armistice, hence with time for reflection, and both by officers who actually fought in the war so they knew what they were writing about.
The effect is profoundly moving.
on 18 November 2013
Difficult read. Not always easy to follow the time and location changes. Brilliant descriptions of place and soldier's response to seasonal changes despite the killing madness of war.
on 23 September 2014
Probably the best autobiography of life,and death,in the infantry in World War One.it far outpaces Robert Graves"Goodbye to all that'and R C Sherriff's "Journeys End". If anything,it is much closer to John Masters outstanding,but largely forgotten novel of that conflict,the"Loss of Eden Trilogy".,but of course,with Blunden you are getting it exactly as it happened, to him! .It is extraordinary how he even survived the conflict,and serious students of WW 1,and anybody interested in this dreadful and unnecessary conflict, which changed the face of theworld,should include this book in their"inventory". Quite Outstanding!
on 20 August 2012
I'd been warned off this book because of the literary style of language used but it wasn't a problem. I should add here that my grandfather fought in the South Downs Regiment from 1916 to 1918 alongside Edmund Blunden (our only family heirloom is a first edition of the book dedicated to my grandfather "for his friendship in Flanders") so I was curious to learn more about what they experienced. It's definitely a book worth reading although I did prefer Sassoon's "Memoirs of an Infantry Officer".