The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 7 No 3 - June 1987

Horror Recollected in Tranquility:
The Classic Memoirists of the Western Front
- Blunden, Graves and Sassoon

by S Monick

In a previous issue of the Military History Journal the writer discussed the drastic transformation in the popular conception of war which resulted from the experience of the Western Front in World War 1; encapsulated in the poetic works of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and the profound reaction which they embodied against the traditional ethos of war contained in the works of Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell.(1) The following article is an extension of that theme, in so far as it endeavours to analyze the impact of the Western Front on the consciousness of three participants who survived, as expressed in their autobiographies; these participants being Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. The term 'extension' has been carefully chosen, in so far as the poetry of World War 1 represents but one dimension (albeit an extremely vital and incisive dimension) of the response of the generation which was plunged into the Golgotha of the Western Front. The essence of this poetic dimension is immediacy. It was indeed this desperate urgency to communicate the poets' traumatic response to the Dantesque inferno into which they were suddenly immersed which captures an immediacy that has survived subsequent generations, as discussed in the previous article.(2) However, the autobiographical vehicle of literary expression embodies a totally different response. It requires sculpting and moulding. The prose work embodies a far more intellectualized (and thus distanced) articulation of experience, providing its creator with the opportunity to carefully reflect upon, and order, his/her experiences. It is for precisely this reason that the vast majority of those prose works which emerged from the experience of the Western Front appeared a decade after the end of the war.

No less than the poetry, the autobiographical works generated by the Western Front mirrors the anguished response to the hitherto totally unimagined character of industrialized war. For the majority, if not all, of those who sought to come to terms with this traumatic epoch in their lives, it remained the central landmark in their psychological landscape. To this extent, the autobiographies of Blunden, Graves and Sassoon bear eloquent testimony to the observation of Guy Chapman, whose work, A Passionate Prodigality (published 1933) is one of the finest records of personal experience in World War 1. Publisher, historian, academic, man of letters, he symbolized the kind of intelligent and sensitive youth who inhabited the inferno of the Western Front. Serving in a battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, he survived one 'great show' after another, to emerge, in 1919, as second-in-command of the battalion, with the OBE and MC. In the above quoted book he writes:

Guy Chapman's comments are extremely illuminating as they throw a fresh light upon the mental suffering induced by service on the Western Front by such intelligent and sensitive minds as are represented by Blunden, Graves, Sassoon, Owen, Read and others. For there is a suggestion that underlying the response of the liberal conscience, schooled in the humanistic tradition which abhors violence and insists upon man's essential rationality, there is a strong element of guilt accruing from the actual enjoyment of war, the thrill of living for so long on the edge of extinction and the extreme demands made upon the leadership and morale of junior officers. It is perhaps significant that, despite their obvious and undoubtedly sincere repugnance against the wholesale suffering which they witnessed on the Western Front, all three memoirists were undoubtedly able soldiers (two - Sassoon and Blunden - being awarded the Military Cross); as, indeed, was Wilfred Owen (who was also awarded the MC) Graves is clearly a testament to the enduring impression left by service in World War 1, to which Chapman alludes. It is significant that, in a recent biography of Graves, the writer states that, since his 80s, Graves has lived 'mostly in the past - and often in that of the war in which he so nearly lost his life.'(4)

The obvious physical threat which these writers constantly faced was counterpointed by the no less feared spectre of neurasthenia (the term commonly applied to battle fatigue, or shell shock, but in actual fact meaning nervous breakdown; deriving from 'neuron' - nerve - and 'asthenia' - weakness). Graves was on the verge of thus succumbing, whilst Sassoon probably suffered a total nervous breakdown (c.f. below). The dominant motif which emerges from a study of the autobiographies of Blunden, Graves and Sassoon is the desperate search for psychological defences against such a condition; a search which was probably most successful in the case of Blunden, and least so in that of Sassoon. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that, in the majority of instances, the poetry and prose relating to the Western Front was produced by junior officers. Thus, to extreme personal stress was added the heavy burden of responsibility for the men under their command. (Owen interpreted this role in terms of the priesthood, and there is little reason to doubt that his fellow officers took their responsibilities no less seriously.)(5) In many instances failure to counteract the threat marred the remainder of the lives of those who served on the Western Front. The poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, for example, was driven into madness, spending the rest of his life (between 1922 and his death in 1937) in mental institutions. (The certificate which committed him speaks of 'manic/depressive psychosis'. Minds, no less than bodies, were destroyed on the Western Front). During the formative years of their lives (Blunden was only 19 years of age when he joined the Army and Graves the same age) the customary psychological defences to which men have recourse were thus subjected to this tremendous pressure. As will be discussed below, the autobiographical works which emerged a decade following the Armistice were essentially motivated by therapeutic considerations.

The following article adopts a certain patterned approach to these works. First, the emphasis bears heavily upon the social-psychological responses evoked by the Western Front. The literary qualities - and defects - of the writers discussed are analyzed only in so far as they enhance - or detract from - the impact made upon the reader in conveying their experiences and attitudes. Second, it will be observed that the prose writers discussed were, primarily, poets, Although the central focus is directed upon their autobiographical works, the poetry is nevertheless referred to, in so far as it illuminates aspects of their personality which emerge in their prose works. Finally, the three writers have been selected as they share certain central characteristics. First, there are strong personal associations in the histories of two of the figures discussed, Sassoon and Graves. They served in the same battalion and both appear extensively in each other's autobiographies (albeit Graves appears in a thinly disguised form in Sassoon's autobiographical works, in accordance with the latter's device of concealment; c.f. below). Second, two of the personalities - Sassoon and Blunden - were strongly identified by deeply shared attitudes, centring upon a profound nostalgia for a lost civilization, the pivot of which was the highly idealized veneration for pre-1914 rural England. Third, all three, serving as infantry officers, survived the supreme - and fateful - crisis of British arms in World War 1, the Somme; and, indeed, served in the same sector of this front in 1916. The Western Front was the scenario of the major crisis which beset European civilization during the Great War. (To the collective European mind its traumatic impact was comparable to that of the Ice Age). Thus, in terms of the relationship between war and culture, the impressions contained in the autobiographical works of this trilogy of writers are more relevant than, for example, T E Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (published in 1935), which describes the Arab revolt against the Turks in the Middle East during 1917-1918, and which is generally regarded as a classic of modern English prose writing. The futile stagnation and attrition of industrial war was most fully experienced by the infantry serving on the Western Front, and thus the branch of the army in which these three writers served is also immediately relevant to the theme of technological war shaping the cultural response; to a far greater extent than, for example, Cecil Lewis's Sagittarius Rising (published in 1936), which provides a vivid picture of an aviator's life in the Royal Flying Corps. Indeed, Lewis himself testified to the stark contrast between the two modes of fighting:

The romanticism which Lewis could still attach to war could not survive the experience of trench warfare.

EDMUND BLUNDEN: Undertones of War (1928)

Edmund Charles Blunden was born in 1896 and, before the outbreak of World War 1, was educated at Christ's Hospital. In 1916 he joined the British Army, aged 19 years. He served with the Royal Sussex Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross. After the war he continued his education at the University of Oxford and then commenced a career in journalism, joining the staff of the Athenaeum. Early volumes of poetry appeared in 1914,1916 and 1920. He was appointed Professor of English at the University of Tokyo in 1924 and returned to England in 1927. In 1931 he was made a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. He joined the staff of the Times Literary Supplement in 1943 and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1951. In 1953 he was appointed Professor of English at the University of Hong Kong. He died in 1974.

First photo

Edmund Blunden.

His autobiography Undertones of War (published in 1928) captured the (then) rising tide of popular interest in World War 1, and was reprinted several times. In common with the other retrospective writers of the 1920s - be it in autobiography or fiction - Blunden had an essentially therapeutic motive in recording his experiences. He was endeavouring to seek a pattern in the traumatic and harrowing events which had so unexpectedly impinged upon his formative years. (Writing in the preface to the 1956 impression, Blunden states that '... in contrast with the Second World War the Great War fell like the proverbial bolt from the blue; it was to most of us like a very queer jest of the gods.')

Such a raison d'etre applied with especial intensity and urgency to the survivors of the Great War, in view of the cosmic and hitherto unimagined dimensions of the experiences into which they were plunged. Hence, their literary evocation of these events embody an extended confrontation with their wartime lives.

The urgent need, on Blunden's part, for such a re-appraisal of his wartime experiences is clearly reflected in the poem 1916 seen from 1921, the opening lines of which are:

The heavy rhythms reflect the starkness of the poet's grief. Jon Silkin writes of the poem:

'The experience that has prematurely aged him binds him not only with its insistent fears, but also with the ties of love. This is the force of "green places ... that were my own". But where nature has made "green" again the hideousness of a mutilated territory [i.e. the Western Front] and should offer benign comfort, the very terms of his previous life so lovingly and fearfully bound together have been eradicated; and not merely in that many of the men he knew are dead, but by the force of nature. Thus what should succour him does not; it exiles him from the area to which he was committed, and its now [restored] character is no consolation to him. Nature fails him and the failure increases his desolation, in that it was nature that he had always relied on before, and through the war, to provide a comfort that he could find nowhere else.'(6)

The theme of the poem is the concept that memory exiles him from a developing present. There is a strong echo of the deep isolation within the post-war world which resulted from the awareness of being a member of a 'lost generation'. Implicit in this isolation is possibly the feeling of guilt which accrues from the very fact of survival itself, explicitly stated in Blunden's poem, War Autobiography:

The poem contains overtones of the death wish; or, to describe the feeling less sensationally, of a deep weariness at being deprived of those relationships which the war made and destroyed and, being destroyed, bequeath a sterile world to the survivors. The above two poems have been quoted and discussed as they help to a large extent to explain the psychological relief sought in the compilation of Blunden's autobiography. Being exiled from the present by memory, the writer seeks for the consolation implicit in those past experiences of the Western Front; to be reunited with a (then) meaningful world. It is also feasible that, by reactivating the psychological resources which he had then utilized, they may be impacted with the present, so to speak, and their values renewed in a changed world. The scope of Undertones of War is severely limited, and certainly does not approximate to a full autobiography. It is a very selective account of Blunden's experiences as a very young subaltern on the Somme in 1916 and at the third battle of Ypres (popularly known as Passchendaele) in 1917. The work is very different from contemporary works dealing with the Western Front in so far as it does not attempt either an implicit or explicit criticism of the war, or the manner of its conduct. The theme of detachment is mirrored in the highly restrained prose. The style imparts the modest character of Blunden's personality, reflected in the assertion, in the final sentence of the book, that Blunden views himself as 'a harmless young shepherd in a soldier's coat'. For example, although Blunden does not shirk from describing the violence of battle when he was directly involved (displaying, on occasion, great courage and enterprise) and provides a faithful account of death and mutilation and the physical privations of the Passchendaele theatre, he does so in a quiet, unemphatic fashion that represents the extreme opposite to Barbusse, for example. The following extract is particularly revealing:

The above extract clearly illustrates two essential characteristics of Blunden's approach. The first is the absence of any attempt to frame a moral attitude regarding the death and mutilation with which he was surrounded. His response to the sudden conversion of the lance-corporal from a comparatively happy human being to a shattered mass of bone and flesh is one of bewilderment. No moral conclusion is drawn. Such an attitude clearly accords with Blunden's studied reticence throughout the book. Throughout Undertones of War the author is clearly subservient to the events in which he is embroiled. These events are arranged in chapters, each of which is grouped around a separate narrative focus. He does not intervene by seeking to order these occurrences as reinforcement of his own viewpoint or reflections. (There are, however, some striking exceptions to this approach, as when Blunden refers to his sympathy for Sassoon's anti-war campaign (c.f. below) and speaks of his 'conviction that the war was useless and inhuman'). Second, the above extract clearly reveals Blunden's preference for an oblique, indirect approach in recounting physical horrors. The explicit description of the hideous remains of the lance-corporal is certainly not diluted in its impact ('the gobbets of blackening flesh, the earth-wall sotted with blood, with flesh, the eye under the duckboard, the pulpy bone ...') but is confined to a single sentence. The horrific climax is reserved for the second paragraph, in which the remains of the corpse are shovelled into a bag. The horror is conveyed indirectly, through the reactions of Sgt Simmons.

A dominating motif in Blunden's autobiography is the infusion of imagery derived from rural England into his evocation of the Western Front. Writing of this aspect of his work, one critic, Jon Silkin, comments: 'The tender rural memory is interleaved with the experience of war, and the whole is held together in a questioning retrospective gentleness. In Blunden's mind the two seem inalienable from each other, linked perhaps because the emotional extremity of one recalls the contrasting gentleness of the other.'(7)

In the writer's opinion, Silkin's interpretation does not approach the root cause of the pervasiveness of the naturalist imagery within Blunden's work. For the essence of this consistent evocation of rural England is the preservation of a sense of continuity with the known, familiar and, above all, loved, amidst the recollection of horror. It thus serves an essentially therapeutic psychological purpose on the author's part. The contrast between the two worlds is not conveyed with bitterness or irony. Rather, it forms a balanced approach, the opposite thus evoked contributing to a profound sense of continuity. This impression is clearly conveyed by the following passage:

By thus permeating the texture of his prose with this contrast between the stark, brutal realities of war and the remembered (or imagined) beauties and harmonies of the rural order, the reader gains the impression that the sense of cosmic disorder is blended with a feeling for the continuity of what has been - temporarily - disturbed. To reiterate, such an approach possesses a distinctly therapeutic aspect; the concept that cosmic and uncontrollable violence is the new permanent state of mankind is banished in favour of the attitude that it represents but a temporary disruption of the natural rhythms of society. John Lehmann reinforces this point when he writes:

One may quote many passages in this vein. The following is a particularly graphic illustration of Blunden's attitude of mind during his service on the Western Front:

A further example of this characteristic is contained in the following extract:

In the consistent counter-pointing of his war experiences with nature (expressed through rural imagery), Blunden may well have been motivated (albeit sub-consciously) by deeper considerations than association with the known and loved. For pre-World War 1 European civilization was still deeply influenced by the tradition which had survived from the 18th Century Enlightenment; viz that man is an innately rational being. When his desires are not interfered with by artificial man-made agencies, they reflect the pre-established harmonies to be found in nature. This essentially optimistic conception of human nature had generated the liberal laissez faire policies of 19th Century Britain. In the two decades preceding the outbreak of World War 1, this view of humanity had been heavily undermined by the impact of Freud, Marx and Darwin. The combined influence of Freudian psychology, Marxian socio-economics and Darwinian evolutionary theory had generated a profound problem: the inability to arrive at a commonly accepted metaphysical conception of man. The collective experience of World War 1 finally and irrevocably destroyed the optimistic rationalism which had been inherited from the Englightenment. Nevertheless, it was probably a formative influence in Blunden's youth (and heavily underpinned the Georgian poetic tradition, which was the shaping influence of many of the World War 1 poets, including, of course, Blunden). This recurrent association with the unchanging harmonies of nature is thus a means of affirming the essential rationality of humanity in the face of all that appeared to strenuously reject this rationality.

A distinct feature of Blunden's prose is his sharp, exact powers of observation. These apply to the phenomena of war no less than to the rural landscape, and provide the vehicle for reflections regarding the changing nature of the war. For example, one may quote his comments regarding the prevalence of the steel helmet after 1916. This observation contains an awareness of the impersonal technology which dehumanized the combatants: 'It is true that steel helmets now became the rule, their ugly useful discomfort supplanting our old friendly soft caps ... The dethronement of the soft cap clearly symbolized the change that was coming over the war, the induration from a personal crusade into a vast machine of violence ... '

This passage, one of the few moments of overt reflection, represents one of the slight climaxes of the book, but it is not dwelt upon, such detailed discussion being inconsistent with the writer's reticent narrative approach.

Any interpretation of the war as a heroic epic conflict was totally alien to Blunden (as also to Graves and Sassoon). Within this context, the essentially pacific outlook of Blunden may be contrasted to the attitude of Ernst Junger, whose autobiographical work, The Storm of Steel appeared in English translation in 1929, subtitled From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front. Although Junger survived much the same experiences as his British counterparts on the Western Front (including the Somme) his attitude is remarkably contrasted to theirs. Despite the fact that he too records violent death, mutilation and every kind of physical squalor and privation, not for one instant does his enthusiasm for the war falter; his patriotic fervour and idealism remain unimpaired until the very end of the war - and, indeed, survived into the post-war world. Despite all that Junger had seen and endured (almost dying of a lung wound) he continued to exalt war as a great and ennobling experience. This violently contrasting approach to the experience ot the Western Front may be most effectively illustrated within the context of Blunden's passage alluding to the emergence of the steel helmet, which has been quoted above. Whereas Blunden writes ruefully of the helmet's 'ugly useful discomfort', and looks back nostalgically at the soldiers' soft caps and the primitive stage of the war associated with them, Junger conceives of the helmeted German soldier as a figure of heroic energy, embodying the noble qualities of the Classical or Renaissance epochs:

Thus, whilst Junger draws precisely the same conclusions from the emergence of the steel helmet as does Blunden (i.e. the symptom of the advent of mass industrialized war) he instinctively casts the conclusions within a framework of heroic rhetoric totally alien to the liberal conscience and essentially pacific outlook of Blunden. It would be simplistic to identify Junger's ideology with the German national mind at that time (which, it should be noted, also produced Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), far closer in spirit to the English writers). Junger's ideology might well be simply a question of temperament (although it may be argued also that it embodies the survival of the old Prussian militaristic tradition which was so successfully channelled by the Nazi movement, and with which Remarque's work so powerfully contended; All Quiet on the Western Front proved second only to Mein Kampf in popularity). Junger's final words in the book anticipate the Nazi spirit: 'Though force without and barbarity within conglomerate in sombre clouds, yet so long as the blade of a sword will strike a spark in the night may it be said: Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!'

To reiterate, Undertones of War is characterized by a marked austerity of approach. This is illustrated, not only in the highly confined narrative focus, but in the extremely restricted scope of the narrative. No less than in Owen's poetry, the world of the Western Front is conceived as a totally self-contained entity, a civilization within itself (albeit of an extremely bizarre character), possessing its own values and even its own peculiar time scheme. The Western Front is projected as having its own unique historical development:

However, the feeling of alienation from the civilian world of the home front, which features to such a large extent in the autobiographies of both Graves and Sassoon, receives virtually no attention whatsoever in Undertones of War. (One should, however, note that Blunden does permit himself a sad comment on the widely attested brutalization of civilian life, which pervaded Great Britain by 1917: 'During my leave, I remember principally observing the large decay of lively bright love of country, the crystallization of dull civilian hatred on the basis of "the last drop of blood".')

ROBERT GRAVES: Goodbye to All That (1929)

Robert Graves was born in 1895 and, prior to the outbreak of war, was educated at Charterhouse. He joined the Army in 1914, with a commission, and served on the Western Front with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. After the war he continued his education at the University of Oxford (where, characteristically, he did not sit for his BA examinations but was awarded a post-graduate B Litt degree on the basis of his published works on literary criticism). Apart from a brief and unhappy period as a Professor of English Literature at the University of Cairo, he pursued a highly successful career as a man of letters. Primarily a poet, he was, in addition, a highly successful novelist (producing such acclaimed novels as I Claudius, Claudius the God and King Jesus) and literary critic. (His famous work, The White Goddess generated a totally new mythological concept of English poetry).

Second photo

Robert Graves, second from left (seated).

Goodbye to All That (published in 1929) is undoubtedly an autobiographical masterpiece of World War 1, clearly ranking with Blunden's work. There are several profound contrasts between the two works. The first concerns scope. Graves's work is a full scale autobiography, commencing with the author's schooldays at Charterhouse, extending to his post-war life as an undergraduate at Oxford and his experiences in Egypt, as a Professor of English Literature at the University of Cairo in 1926. However, the central chapters of the book relate to Graves's four years service in World War 1. The second major contrast resides in the personalities of the two writers. The character of the narrator in Undertones of War is modest and reticent, mirrored in the style. Graves, on the other hand, emerges as a vigorously eccentric personality, striding through the physical and psychological landscape of the Western Front. He is almost insufferably knowledgeable and opinionated. In Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (c.f. below) Graves's personality is vividly captured in the assumed character of David Cromlech (specifically meant to represent Graves):

However, Graves's egotism is ultimately a source of great strength in the work, as Goodbye to All That clearly possesses an impact lacking in both Undertones of War and Sassoon's fictionalized The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. The power of Graves's autobiography derives from a sharply concentrated focus upon the events of the Western Front as refracted through the prism of the writer's highly egotistical personality. The autobiographies of Blunden and Sassoon are diffused in their impact as they do not pivot upon the consciousness of the writers but, rather, are motivated by a profound nostalgia for the past. The point is well made by Graves's biographer:

The source of that 'pertinence' is the motive force of the writer's ego. In contrast, the autobiographical works of Blunden and Sassoon are not egocentric, but infused with an escapist desire for a lost past. As Graves's biographer further comments:

(It is, perhaps, precisely because Blunden and Sassoon were so deeply rooted in the past, as an anodyne against the almost unbearable pain of the present, that the power of their poetry ultimately waned). Graves certainly respected the decencies of English and European civilization which characterized a past culture rightly conceived by Blunden and Sassoon to have been irrevocably shattered. However, for Graves the past was to be henceforth irrelevant. As the title of his autobiography suggests, Graves regards his Western Front experiences as one of the central chapters of a closed book; of an epoch that has ended and which can never return. By committing these experiences to paper he was 'wiping the slate clean!,' so to speak.

Robert Graves, no less than Edmund Blunden, had urgent recourse to certain psychological antidotes which, encapsulated in his autobiography, were pre-eminently a means to the recovery of mental stability in the face of the harrowing and nightmarish experiences with which he had been confronted on the Western Front. In Graves's case (and in that of numerous others) the nightmare of his experiences certainly did not end with the Armistice of 11 November 1918, but persisted with terrible intensity for the following decade. As Graves's biographer writes:

It is significant that his war neurosis left Graves in 1928 (i.e. the year in which Goodbye to All That was written, probably a testimony to the therapeutic value of the autobiography). A powerful component in this war neurosis was the guilt complex which accrued from the act of killing; Graves was deeply ashamed of having killed fellow human beings. This sense of guilt informs his poem Reproach (included in his volume of poems entitled The Pier-Glass, published in 1921). Reproach is highly informative as a gauge to Graves's state of mind three years after the end of the war (i.e. at the time when Blunden wrote 1916 seen from 1921). The poem recalls an experience of the poet in France, in 1917, when he looked up at the sky and imagined that he saw a face staring down at him; it was the moon, but transformed into a face, which he took to be that of Christ, reproaching him: