Blunden's War - Part 14: Minenwerfers: what's really under the white headstones?
Now begins the definitive experience for Blunden on the Ancre, in the continuing Somme battle, from mid September until mid November. He notes, in 'A Battalion History':
"During almost three months the battalion had practicably always been under fire, held trenches for scarcely tolerable periods, and shared three bewildering and devastating attacks. It had been cut off...from common sights and scenes of life, and had become accustomed to two views of the universe: the glue like formless mortifying wilderness of the crater zone above, and below, fusty clay smeared candle lit wooden galleries where the dead lay decomposing under knocked in entrances...of the four hundred men who joined at Beaussart even, a great number were dead, wounded, or otherwise vanished before we left the
Blunden recalls the time differently in Undertones of War, painting the autumn weeks in this Beaumont Hamel sector as a tranquil time 'where we were growing like hermit crabs into the sector.'
But we are on the edge of the Thiepval inferno. Despite picking the odd blackberry at the entrance to Second Avenue, the sector was bombarded fairly
constantly with minenwerfers, and 'one often turned cold in the fire-trench as one heard the approaching swish of these monsters.' There was no wire in front, and the sector was exposed; Harrison expected a German raid. But Blunden had
been restored to his Field Works role, and in charge of seven or eight men in maintenance parties. He was responsible for making the communication trenches 'beautified' even, and for urging company commanders to repair their
crumbling fire steps.
However, in anticipation of that German raid, Cassels and Blunden lay at night in the new shell holes, their men fingering their bombs. In the morning, Blunden checked his store dugout for stocks of duckboards for the day's work: he found 'the sun gleamed through the crannies there on the unutterably mangled heads and half naked bloody bodies of the poor fellows, victims of the minenwerfer bombardment, who had been carried there to await burial.'
Today, the tranquil cemeteries in the Beaumont Hamel sector, belie the reality of that desperate time as the Germans exploited the battalion's weak position. Despite military rumours of the anticipated decisive battles to the south and the
arrival of the tanks 'the Germans were described as feeling completely overwhelmed. As usual, they
were not overwhelmed where we happened to be facing them.'