Literature and War Readalong August 29 2014: Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

Undertones of War

Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War is one of the most famous WWI memoirs. Blunden was a poet who enlisted at the age of twenty and took part in the battles at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. My edition, which is The University of Chicago Press edition, contains a number of his poems. It will be interesting to compare the accounts of the trenches with the poems inspired by the landscape.

Here are the first sentences

I was not anxious to go. An uncertain but unceasing disquiet had been upon me, and when, returning to the officers’ mess a Shoreham Camp one Sunday evening, I read the notice that I was under orders for France, I did not hide my feelings. Berry, a subaltern of my set, who was also named for the draft, might pipe to me “Hi, Blunden, we’re going out: have a drink.”; I could not dance. There was something about France in those days which looked to me, despite all journalistic enchanters, to be dangerous.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (UK 1928) WWI, Memoir, 288 pages

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as ‘murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes’. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden’s poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.


The discussion starts on Friday, 29 August 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

22 thoughts on “Literature and War Readalong August 29 2014: Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

  1. It should be interesting to compare this to FEAR since Blunden was an officer. I’ll be curious to see how critical he is of the forces that sent him there (and his ‘superior’ officers).

    • It will be very interesting. I got the impression he was outspoken. He certainly took part in the bloodiest battles. In the foreword it says he was a very shy, very gentle officer.

  2. It’s amazing that he survived some of the worst battles ever. I am really intrigued to get Blunden’s take on something so terrible. Surely not an easy read, but sounds like something worth getting into.

  3. What powerful excerpts. I think that poets are often essayists. Their descriptions of the world around them are spot-on. I would expect no less in Undertones of War.

    As a side note: have you read any of Mary Renault’s books? I see The Guardian has chosen her Alexander the Great trilogy for their book club. I hadn’t read any of her work and was wondering if you would recommend the series.

    • It should be a very powerful book.
      I’ve heard of Mary Renault and know she’s highly regarded but I haven’t read her. I thought The Last of the Wine was considered her masterpiece. Maybe it’s part of the trilogy?

  4. I have been waiting for this for the whole year, Caroline 🙂 So excited! I have wanted to read Blunden’s book for a while now and what better time to read it than for the Literature and War readalong for the WW1 centenary. It is so wonderful that you have the University of Chicago press edition! It is such a wonderful edition, isn’t it – such beautiful paper and cover and font – it is such a pleasure to read. I think that is the best edition of the book in print now. Happy reading! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts at the end of the month. Can’t wait to get started on the book myself 🙂

    • I’m so glad that you’ll will join me and looking forward to the discussion.
      I like everything about the University of Chicago Press edition as well. I would have liked to add the cover but couldn’t find a decent online version.
      Happy reading to you too! 🙂

  5. I imagine that some of poems to convey such a sense of horror and desolation. Perhaps they convey some other things too. I look forward to your commentary on this one Caroline.

  6. Flûte. I won’t have time to read this one with you. It sounds fascinating and the man is a survivor.
    I’ll read the review and follow the discussion.

  7. I’ve just got my copy in the mail….I don’t seem to be doing so well this year with the WWI books which is surprising as I love this era–maybe just too much–too many books being published about at the moment? Anyway–I am almost finished with The Lie, which I am feeling tepid towards–it is not long, but I feel like the story has been done so many times before and this one just hasn’t been compelling as others, but then maybe I am just feeling a little jaded about these books right now. I still plan on continuing with the NYRB title that came before the Dunmore…. this has been such a weird reading year for me in so many ways….

    • I felt like you about The Lie. It wasn’t what i expected.I thought the lie had somethign to do with the government lying to the soldiers. And a lot of what she did has been done before. I still liked the writing.
      I’m struggling with my own books this year – I also found this a weird reading year.

  8. I know that circumstances have prevented us from discussing this book but I did want to say that I was very pleased to have read this book. Edmund Blunden comes across as a most humane man. Thanks for including it Caroline.

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