Luckily, the current generation knows no war. War is the greatest misery, it is a visitation, war is the embodiment of hell on the Earth. War is like a sore on the body of history and human society, it will bleed long after its official end, there will be those who are hurt, wounded, and changed by the war. There are a lot of those, for whom war has become a natural part of their souls; it is about “demons” mentioned by Blunt (p. viii). Those people are the only reliable source of information about war, the people who have endured war and who managed to commit their experience and pain to paper. It should be taken into account that each of those who write about his/her own war experience presents the information in the light of their personality and their attitude to war. If Blunt focused on combat when writing his memoirs, Holmes presents another side of the war, as war is not only on the battlefield. If we imagine that the accounts of Blunt and Holmes were the only accounts of war, they would be sufficient for us to get to know how the man could be changed by combat, nearness of death, and war. Blunt’s Foot Soldier is the Odyssey of a combat infantryman, the journey under shelling and among German mines. The main merit of the book is that it shows the way combat reshapes and changes human soul forever, revealing and strengthening feelings that are hidden in usual life. But for the technical details, it is a universal picture of combat; it can be applied to any battle or military action in terms of human soul wounded by war.
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Due to Foot Soldier, we have an opportunity to trace the European Odyssey of the author. The title of the first section is a perfect one; it sets the whole tone for the narration. A reader understands the crucial importance of this “journey”, we are prepared for the finale, but no one can even suspect that Blunt will undergo cardinal changes and will become an absolutely different person eventually. The details offered by the author show that his example is common and it makes it even more awful.
Let us consider the beginning of the Odyssey and the infantry man’s expectations concerning the war and the gradual change of his inner world and the awakening of new feelings, his soul-searching. The idea presented by the author on the first page of the book eloquently describes the mood of every recruit, a soldier who can be called a soldier only relatively. He said that they were “men … who had no desire to die alone in some war-ravaged foreign country for a cause that was not … clear to any of us” (Blunt, p.1). The same idea can be found in Holmes’ A Yankee in the Trenches: “After more than a year in the British service I could not … say exactly why I was there” (Holmes, p.1). This idea reveals the awfulness of the initial situation: people were going to fight on the strange land without any motivation; they did not even understand what they were fighting and dying for. The best word that leaps into your mind when reading about the beginning of Blunt’s Odyssey is “naivety”. He said he was wondering if the training he had received could protect him and let the soldier return home safely. In fact, it turned out that the theoretical knowledge the soldiers were given during their training was practically useless, the only thing they needed was self-preservation that was an inborn skill or sense, and there existed no training manual that could teach a recruit how to protect himself.
At the beginning of “The Jump Off” chapter, Blunk spoke of the wave of nausea he had suffered. This wave can be interpreted figuratively: nausea was caused by the rejection of war by a human organism. War is strange, alien to human nature, an unnecessary evil that harms all forms of life. He mentions that the cause of his nausea was the combination of fear, exhaustion, and lack of food. Blunt was not a silly young boy when he faced the war, he could expect these difficulties. Still, he was not prepared to kill anyone; no one could be prepared to see death. Combat had been just a shadowy thing for him until he experienced his first battle. Fear was the feeling that dominated Blunt’s mind at the beginning of his Odyssey. It was the only emotion that dominated his soul and its strength could be shown by the fact that nothing could eliminate the fear, even the thoughts about home.
One more detail should be mentioned about Blunts’ inner world before his first battle. He said that he was joining two hundred strangers and had no idea what was waiting for them. It is really so, the soldiers were not close, they had no feelings for one another. Each of them was suffering from his own fear.
When the battle began, when the author felt shelling near his head, the changes became obvious at once. At last, it is possible to follow them. The first important change is the attitude to the fellow soldiers. Blunt says about the first dead American he saw that “this was no stranger; this was one of our own” (Blunt, p.66). Death can not only separate people but unite them as well. When your fellow soldier can die any minute, just as you can, when you see the death of Americans every day, it makes you like relatives, it makes men cry and sob over the dead bodies of their friends as one of the soldiers, described by Blunt, did.
The first time when the author saw death and the first shots of the guns and rifles aroused a feeling of euphoria in his soul. After this battle, he was “a veteran” already. It is possible to imagine the cruelty and the risk of the battle if only one day was enough to feel like being a veteran of war.
Combat taught the author the rules of survival better than any army manual could do. He learned that danger was everywhere: mines were death messengers hidden in the ground but snipers were waiting somewhere in other hidden places. He learned that to survive, an infantryman should be quick, “there were only two kinds of combat infantrymen – the quick and the dead” (Blunt, p.108). Besides, combat taught Blunt many more lessons, it taught him that one could survive if he was cunning and inventive, like it was when he managed to capture the Germans with a mine detector.
The more the author stayed at war, the more tired he became, once there was a nervous breakdown when he was blown out from their fox hole. War was too difficult to bear long, battle fatigue accumulated along with hatred for the enemy. The more grief the author saw, the stronger his hatred became. It brought him a slight relief even if he could shoot at a dead German soldier.
One more thing that is worth mentioning is the author’s soul-searching. At the war, due to combat, he understood that many things that were important in usual life lost their value during the war. Such was money that turned out to be useless. In contrast to it, every minor thing, which could help a soldier survive, was valuable, like a small crucifix he once found. For the same reason, Holmes also mentions his “mascot”, a small black velvet cat.
Drawing a conclusion, it is necessary to mention a statement by Blunt that can conclude his Odyssey: “Combat was a constant roller coaster of adrenaline-pumping highs and soul-searing depressions” (Blunt, p.114). His narrative shows the development of feelings in the soul of a soldier at war; it shows the waste of war, pain, tortures, misery, hatred, and self-sacrifice. The book by Holmes serves the same purpose: to show the nature of war for a soldier, though the manners of narration of the two authors differ greatly. If Holmes’ Yankee in the Trenches is written in the light of a line from his favorite war song, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile” (Holmes, p.8), Blunt is more sad, wounded by terrible memories, and his narration is more terrifying, it makes one’s flesh creep. If Homes also mentions the help of other people who were involved in the war, doctors and nurses, like Miss Malin, Blunt’s narration is focused on combat and a soldier, the main character and the main victim of war.