Blunden's War - Part 19: Into German lines - 13 November 1916
Today is November 11th. Armistice Day, 11 am.
Almost two years prior to that event, November 13th was a 'shabby, clammy' Monday morning. Battalions of the division struck the Germans towards Grandcourt and Beaumont Hamel without warning. Beyond the curving Ancre, past Blunden's Mill, over the unburied dead, the mud craters and wire, almost 2,000 Germans were taken in the labyrinths under St Pierre Divion.
The plan then was that the Royal Sussex would supply 300 men to carry wiring materials to positions in advance of those just captured. The land had to be reconnoitred - this meant Edmund Blunden and one of Harrison's runners, a red cheeked silent youth named Johnson.
At 4pm, while it was still light, in a misty drizzle they passed the death pit of St Martin's Lane, the scrawled Schwaben and into the low hills. They crossed the remains of communication debris, and met few people as white lights swirled into the now dark sky.
'Get down off there!' an officer calls out. A sudden dance of high explosive was let out around the pair. 'Come on Johnson!' Blunden strikes out for what he thinks is the front line. The air explodes as a barrage of shells starts up. 'Never had shells seemed so torrentially swift, so murderous, they seemed to swoop over one's shoulder. We ran. We tore ourselves out the of the clay to run - and lived. The shells at last skidded and spattered behind us - but where were we?'
'I thought I knew where we were. These heavy timber shelters with the great openings were evidently German howitzer positions and they had not long been evacuated, I thought, stooping hurriedly over those dead men in field grey overcoats at the entrances, and others flung down by their last 'fox holes' near by.'
With lights flying up northwards and with a deafening noise roaring along the river, the two climb a ridge when rifle fire and a maxim gun open up on them. Retreating down the slope, Blunden sees the wide lagoons of the Ancre river, lit up silver by the lights at Beaucourt. Running, and crouching, they worked through the crumbled pits and over mounds and heaps of what had been St Pierre Divion, just below today's Thiepval Memorial. 'Expecting to be caught at every second...we plunged through a waterfall of shells, British and German barrages alike, now slackening; and were challenged, at last, in English. We had come back from our accidental tour in enemy country. ' They flopped down in the mud of a shell hole with four others from other units, and gathered their senses.
Blunden and Johnson reached Thiepval despite two more huge shellbursts. Harrison was on the phone to General Hornby. 'They have come back and report an extraordinary barrage; say it would be disaster to attempt to send up that party...they have been through terrific shelling...yes I'll bring him (Blunden) along.' Putting the phone down he turns to his second in command: 'No wiring party. I said it would all come out in the wash. Seven o'clock - take it easy Rabbit, we'll go and see the General when you feel a bit better.'