For King and Coun­try­side

Clive Aslet en­joys this mov­ing ac­count of how First World War sol­diers found hope through their con­nec­tion with Na­ture

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

THERE have been so many books on the First World War since the cen­te­nary started that one would have thought the sub­ject was pub­lished out. Not so. Where Pop­pies Blow makes an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the lit­er­a­ture by study­ing the Bri­tish sol­diers’ re­la­tion­ship with Na­ture. To­day, most or­di­nary peo­ple don’t know much about farm­ing, land­scape, the horse or wildlife in all its forms. That wasn’t the case in 1914.

‘We know the hor­ror, but there could be mo­ments of won­der, too

The poet Ed­ward Thomas may have been born in Lam­beth, but he was one of many who iden­ti­fied with, in John Lewis-stem­pel’s words, King and Coun­try­side. Their life in the trenches of the West­ern Front— muddy, prim­i­tive, rat-in­fested— re­duced them to a con­di­tion lit­tle dif­fer­ent from wild an­i­mals. We know the hor­ror, but there could be mo­ments of won­der in it, too.

This book pro­vides a dif­fer­ent van­tage point from that of the recog­nised War Po­ets, whose at­ti­tudes weren’t al­ways those of their gen­er­a­tion as a whole. It’s writ­ten from the let­ters, diaries and me­moirs of a wide range of par­tic­i­pants, gen­er­ally un­known to his­tory, and in­ter­spersed with am­a­teur verse. There is rage, of course—par­tic­u­larly at the fate of horses.

‘Oh! My beloved an­i­mals,’ cried Sir Ed­ward El­gar of the hamp­stead Vol­un­teer Re­serve in 1916 and his sen­ti­ment was echoed on the bat­tle­field by the driver who fell to his knees when the horse pulling his am­mu­ni­tion wagon was killed; all he could say in re­sponse to the Bri­gadier’s ‘Never mind, sonny’ was ‘Bloody Ger­mans’. Maj-gen Jack Seely re­called that ‘one of the finest things about the English sol­dier of the front line was his in­vari­able kind­ness and, in­deed, gen­tle­ness at all times to the horses’.

Sky­larks sang above the down­land of the Somme. This was just one of the species that Capt Pa­trick Chubb, writ­ing for Bri­tish Birds, found un­af­fected by shell­fire. Oth­ers were the house spar­row, swal­low, house martin, chaffinch, yel­lowham­mer, wil­low wren, mag­pie, kestrel and wood pi­geon. The bird­ers of those days were an un­sen­ti­men­tal breed, who thought noth­ing of shoot­ing birds to iden­tify them (one of­fi­cer car­ried a small­bore shot­gun dis­guised as a walk­ing stick for the pur­pose) or col­lect­ing their eggs.

The birds some­times thrived in bat­tle­field con­di­tions. Un­buried corpses fed car­rion-eaters and gen­er­ated huge num­bers of flies: Ford Ma­dox Ford de­scribes the hero of Pa­rade’s End be­ing mobbed by swal­lows when he walks through waist-high this­tles ‘af­ter a fa­mous vic­tory’.

A book that the au­thor doesn’t men­tion is Ob­ser­va­tions and Re­flec­tions on Wild Crea­tures (1923), writ­ten by G. T .K. Mau­rice from his ex­pe­ri­ences on the Salonika front; it re­veals that a vul­ture, al­though un­able to pen­e­trate a uni­form, can pick the skele­ton in­side it clean by pen­e­trat­ing the body cav­ity via the tho­rax. Evo­lu­tion made them bald for a rea­son.

An­i­mals could be eaten, hunted or adopted as pets. Om­nipresent lice made less wel­come com­pan­ions, but other in­sects at­tracted study: two ‘Ants from the Front’ were ex­hib­ited at the South Lon­don En­to­mo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety in Fe­bru­ary 1915. Even the West­ern Front had its quiet spots, one cor­po­ral be­ing fed up with the ‘thou­sands of frogs’ around Rum­inghem, whose ‘croak­ing noise… is just aw­ful’.

In the least promis­ing con­di­tions, men showed their faith in the fu­ture by plant­ing gar­dens. This mov­ing, strangely life-af­firm­ing book de­scribes how the poppy be­came the sym­bol of the war, its mean­ing re­in­forced by nu­mer­ous cul­tural mem­o­ries. We now know that its seeds re­main vi­able for many decades. Could any of the pop­pies that bloom next spring have grown from seeds shed dur­ing the con­flict?

Trench–cat: mouser, gas-de­tec­tor and, above all, com­pan­ion

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