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EDMUND BLUNDEN AT WAR

Edmund Blunden lived for more than half a century after the end of the Great War, for he was a schoolboy in 1914 attending a public school-Christ’s Hospital. By 1915, however, he was serving as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 11th battalion Royal Sussex Regiment known as the "1st South Down battalion" after the South Downs in the county of Sussex. Early in May 1915 he travelled from England via Bethune to Locon and then to the trenches at Festubert, an area also well known to Siegfried Sassoon when he was there with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Blunden’s war had begun.

The battalion was commanded by Lt.Colonel H.J.Grisewood with Major G.H.Harrison as second in command. Harrison who later took over as battalion commander, became an admirer of Blunden’s writings and also a firm friend.

The ground at Festubert was marshy preventing the digging of deep trenches. Accordingly, a series of "grouse butts" or "islands" was built above ground but as they were constructed of sandbags the security they gave was poor.

In due time the battalion was moved south to Givenchy and Cuinchy on the La Bassee Canal. Here the canal was crossed by a bridge named by the British as "Pont Fixe". Once a flourishing village with railway station, post office, school, a brewery and various estaminets, by the time of Blunden’s arrival the village was very much in ruins.

The end of June 1916 found the battalion in the Neuve Chapelle area, a site with a discouraging war history which was not to change. Farther south on the Somme the British were about to mount an attack on a 14 mile front which, apart from some success near Montauban at the southern end of the front, was to prove a disaster on its first day – 1st July 1916. On 30th June 1916 Blunden’s battalion was involved in an equally disastrous attack at the Boar’s Head trench near Neuve Chapelle, designed to force the German Army to keep men and guns in this area rather than send them south to the Somme battle. Another unfortunate attack, this time on 19th July 1916 at nearby Fromelles caused heavy casualties to the Australians and British soldiers of the 61st Division taking part. Blunden wrote that the undertaking was "without the least success" and a cause for "some bitter jesting".

Moved to the Somme battle area, Blunden was involved in the 11th Sussex attack along the river Ancre. At first the attack, mounted on 3rd September 1916, was successful but a failure by the troops on the battalion’s right flank to make progress (amongst other reasons the stubborn defence of the Germans at the Schwaben Redoubt) caused the assaults to fail. Blunden was awarded the Military Cross for his part in bringing up supplies of hand grenades to the forward trenches.

By the 18th November 1916 the battalion had moved to the Ypres battlefields occupying the trench lines both north and south of the Menin Road. On 31st July 1917 Blunden was involved in the battalion’s successful advance to St.Julien. Later the battalion was moved south of the Menin Road to be involved in an unsuccessful battle to re-take Gheluvelt, a village which had been lost in 1914. Here at a site known as the Tower Hamlets trenches Blunden endured some terrible experiences.

The British were well aware that the German Army was preparing for a major attack along the Western Front in March 1918 and in the event the German advance forced a British retreat with heavy losses, in some cases a distance of 40 miles to the west. In January 1918 the 11th Royal Sussex was one of those sent to occupy the front line near Gouzeaucourt north of Peronne. Blunden joined them from leave in England travelling through Mont St.Quentin (the location of a brilliant victory by the Australians in September 1918) eventually arriving in the line in Gauche Wood opposite the Germans holding their front line in Villers-Ghislain.

Just before the German attacks of 21st March 1918 Blunden was sent to England on rest leave for 6 months. By the end of his leave the war was over. Miraculously Blunden had survived without a physical wound. However, the mental scars he suffered during his war service were never to diminish.

SOURCE: "On the Trail of The Poets of The Great War- Edmund Blunden." Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley, S.Yorkshire. S70 2BR

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