Blunden's War - Part 16: A day in the mill
Blunden's 'self employment' led him to spend time under fire in the burnt mill midway between the British front line and the Thiepval Wood positions. It stood alone among waterlogged woods: 'One went to it and from it by the grace of night.'
Whatever Blunden endured that day in the mill, squeezed into the small cupboard dugout stinking of old sandbags, it stayed with him for the rest of his life. Fifty years later, in late summer 1966, in his last war poem 'Ancre Sunshine', he describes himself wandering the area of the mill with his third wife, Claire. They find the Ancre Valley a perfect idyll on that sunny day.
But for the soldier Blunden the mill buildings were under constant fire: 'with luck most of it ending in a group of red willows just behind it'. It seems it was eventually reduced to a grey concrete base, which is what we see today. In the poem Claire wanders the former battlefield with its fields, its railway, its cows and its clearest blue river in golden sunshine. Blunden recalls in the poem that he might have lain 'looking with failing sense on such blue sky, And then become a name with others slain.'
Still alone, Blunden sees Claire in the distance:
'And where she went perhaps the mill
That used to be had risen again, and by
All that was fallen was in its old form still,
For her to witness, with no cold surprise,
In one of those moments when nothing dies.'
After the war at a Battalion reunion, Blunden recalls Colonel Harrison's account of a 'far from attractive patrol' in the marshes east of Hamel Mill. Harrison says that Blunden announced to him his intention of the patrol and of writing a poem on the Mill, and that he accomplished both.
Editor of Blunden's collection of war poetry, Martin Taylor, identifies the poem (published in 1919) as The Condemnation (Hamel Mill). The beginning of the poem shrieks: "Death!" And then its final verse:
'Mill, mill, the wheel is still;
The smouldering rust creeps on with a will,
the weed on the weir.
Green stained, the rafters fall away,
And bare the cobwebbed laths to the day,
And none comes near.'
One can imagine Blunden alone in the mill all day as the rafters fall on the cupboard dugout, the poem forming in his mind, the challenge of youth to remain in this ghastly place, and the desire of the young subaltern to prove a poet's courage to his commander, Colonel Harrison.