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Yser Canal dugouts

Blunden's War - Part 21: We have come North


"We have come North" Blunden proclaims at the beginning of Chapter 14 of Undertones of War.

So far we have journeyed from April 1916 through to where we start today - January 1917. Over Christmas, the battalion felt that, after the horror of the Somme and the 'arrival on firm ground' in Flanders, there had been an interlude. We today, in 2017, have also experienced the interlude of Christmas and New Year. We have enjoyed that traditional break from routine, that uncertainty of days and dates, the temporary departure, for some, from reality. One hundred years later, we are - like Blunden and the battalion - North, on firm ground, but facing an uncertain world future.

For the men of the battalion, in tents at M Camp there has been training, drinking, dining, re-uniting with old friends - and school friends. Blunden has been lucky enough to have a flying visit home, in a dreadful coat that Col Harrison had forbidden him to wear. He wasn't expecting Col Harrison to catch him in it at Victoria! The camp is near to the Straw Hen estaminet at St Jans ter Biezen, and close enough to the bustle and relief at Poperinghe: 'one of the seven wonders of the world. The other six...were temporarily disregarded.'

As now, in 2017, the weather was bitterly cold, as 'we began to discover the War again.' We can make our way today, as with Blunden, past the magnificent tower mill at Elverdinghe, and its chateau screened by trees, to Boesinghe village street, 'a litter of jutting roof timbers, roomless doorways and plaster and brick rubbish'. Blunden cannot see any protection against anything more harmless than a tennis ball. But the front line is within the canal bank of the Yser Canal. With the Belgians to their left, the battalion faced the Germans across the canal, which being frozen led to fears that they might attack across the canal and drive in the Allied left flank.

The General, with his usual sensitivity, ordered that wire be put out - not under cover, but in the open, less than fifty yards from the German parapet. 'Barbed wire is noisy to handle...on bobbins...which clank and twang at most unsuitable moments.' Worley obliged, luckily without casualties, but Blunden 'watched him scrambling about the steep bank in some pain, and afterwards heard his opinions with equal pleasure.'

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