Blunden's War - Part 23: A German Performance
The end of January 1917, rather like a hundred years later, saw sub-zero temperatures. Blunden was to be found, along with the Battalion, somewhere to the side of the present day N37 running from Ieper to Zonnebeke. Back then, it resembled the path of the old railway. Visiting it today, it is grandly titled the southern ring road, but it is railway straight, and near the turn to Hooge Crater, it runs over a culvert.
That culvert was the conduit for a German raid on one of the coldest nights Blunden had endured out in the open.
The Battalion was to identify new young soldiers in the enemy trenches opposite. The General, back in the comparative safety of the Ypres ramparts, decided that, in a raid by Blunden, his school-friend Amon and thirty other ranks, they were to enter the German line, destroy dugouts and procure samples of the young men. All was to be backed up by barrages and trench mortars of all sizes. Blunden's scheme for a 'silent' raid was rejected. He writes: 'this seemed the end of our careers.'
For some reason, the proposed raid was cancelled. However, one midnight shortly after, Blunden had been out in No Man's Land, visiting the Battalion's front. He makes it sound like an evening stroll but a brutal bombardment was taking place to the right of the battalion, it was thought on Railway Wood.
Such is the nature of war, that the sound of the bombardment becomes like a sound-track, and Blunden 'went back to [his] blanket'. At around 9am the following frosty morning, he meets Col. Harrison and exchanges news of the bombardment.
'Not on the 12th', Harrison refutes, 'but on us. We have lost ten men killed and prisoners.' The raiders had approached out of sight of the British sentries, on the south side of the railway embankment. They had waited under the culvert for the barrage, before attacking the Battalion. One man held his Lewis gun at his shoulder and was firing at the raiders, he was found dead among the hummocks, his hand to his gun.
This raid burned brightly in Blunden's mind for the rest of his life. Two short words in Undertones give the reason. The culvert was 'hitherto unnoticed'. He felt personally responsible for not having noticed it - although later he says that the conditions were 'opposed to field engineering.' He generously describes the German dead - one an officer of about forty 'scarred and still hostile'. Another, 'a fair haired youth of eighteen, lying in the snow on his back, staring at the blue day with eyes as blue and icy; his feet were towards the German lines, and his right hand clutched the wooden handle of a bomb.'
Today, the scene can hardly be imagined, as light traffic speeds gently past Railway Wood, past the sign to Hooge Crater Museum - and over the culvert.
For a better view of the scene today go to Google Streetview and search for: crossroads with
N37 and Begijnenbosstraat, near Hooge, Ieper.