Mid semester reporting

by I.A. Isherwood

We’re halfway through my Great War class. Last week we covered the military history of the Verdun and Somme battles. This week, as a bit of a literary breather before spring break and the mid-term, we are reading together Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of War.

We’ll get to Blunden in a second. First, I want to ruminate on how things are going so far. Last week we had one good and one stifled day. The good day was when we discussed Verdun. It is an unfamiliar battle to most American students and we approached the battle in a basic informational sense, but still with a degree of satisfaction, outlining its planning and execution. We left things with a good discussion on the importance of the battle to French memory, which I think will be useful when we approach the subject of war memories later in the semester.

Our discussion of the Somme was a little labored. In part, this was because they had a research paper due; some had that dazed look of too little sleep and too much worry. The Somme is also a tricky battle, I think, to comprehend. For students who are used to studying military history as a series of American triumphs – where battles end decisively – the attritional battles of the First World War seem otherworldly. I don’t think I am exaggerating this point: the casualty numbers and scale of these battles is an immense hurdle to overcome. Sure, we talked about staff learning, tactical developments, and the political and material pressures of attrition on belligerents, but the battles themselves, as well as their historiographies, do not make for tidy narratives.

So, we’re taking a break from maps and artillery concentrations by reading a war memoir. Edmund Blunden was nineteen when he went to France as a lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment. His war memoir, Undertones of War, was published to great acclaim in 1928, Blunden recalling his motivation in the preface, ‘I must go over the ground again.’ The ground was the western front, the Somme and Ypres, Blunden’s imagery expressing on every page the ways in which the war broke the beauty of pastoral landscapes (as well as their temporary inhabitants). Of trench memoirs, few have Blunden’s subtleties, and it for this reason I am somewhat anxious to teach the book. Sassoon’s rage against military authorities, Jünger’s bloody heroism, Graves’s not-so-gentle mocking of just about everyone – their books are ones that students can relate to a bit more easily, I think, because they can understand the temperaments of the authors a bit better than Blunden, whose ambiguity towards the war I suspect is harder to define. But we will see what happens in an hour.