Blunden's War - Part 13: A blackberry at Ocean Villas
The familiar training, marching and action had now become a fixed pattern. The battalion had marched South to the Ancre, had completed training in Monchy Breton ('Monkey Britain'). In that training, the battalion had trained for the required success in the taking of Beaucourt Ridge. That training had been proved to have a number of punctures in it - the Germans being aware of what was planned. But the army ploughs on, and September gives the battalion something of a break.
Blunden describes his billet at Englebelmer in a chemist's house; a rural idyll of loaded apple trees and sweet poetic conversation with James Cassels. Cassels is now, presumably, forgiven by the army for his 'fraternisation' at Festubert (see 11b), and because of his courage. Blunden and he chose a room each in the chemist's house - until, the same night, the Germans poured high explosive into the orchard and they finished it in the cellar.
Col. Harrison had reorganised the battalion after its losses at Beaucourt Ridge. But, marching the 400 new men from England from their railhead at Belle Eglise, Blunden knew it may be their last as the battalion was sent back to 'the more obvious kind of war' at Auchonvillers ('Ocean Villas'), an intimate village ruin close to the line.
We can still go with Blunden on the road from Englebelmer over the downs; we can go via Mailly Maillet with its magnificent church front then 'protected' with straw bags from the missiles of war - you can see the marks left even today. Down the road we can see where the gun pits under the tinting leaves of the apple trees, contain the 'huge throat of the howitzer being elevated to hurl horror at Thiepval Crucifix'. We can see the indentations in the sides of the sunken road which are the remains of dugouts.
Soon we are in Auchonvillers. French troops had recently left, 'leaving behind antiquated cricket ball grenades, and others with tennis bat handles, which we had best leave alone.'
'The heart of the village is masked with its hedges and orchards from almost all ground observation. That heart, nevertheless, bleeds. The village ruins balance like mad acrobats. The church retains a kind of conceptual shape. Up that naked road the stern eye of Beaumont Hamel - turn Amaryllis, turn - this way the tourist's privacy is preserved by ruins and fruitful branches.'
The picture shows Blunden's daughter Margi picking a blackberry at the same spot ninety years later...
'Then we walk under the lee of a damp smelling bank of chalk along a chalky track, pick a blackberry from a bramble...and enter that long and noted trench, Second Avenue.'