Wildlife in the trenches

COUN­TRY LIFE, De­cem­ber 18, 1915

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

At about six o’clock on the morn­ing of May 31, 1915, two fig­ures might have been seen busily en­gaged in wash­ing at the edge of a lit­tle reed-en­closed pond 200 yards west of a small farm ‘some­where in Flan­ders’… they have to keep so low that the wooded ridge some 500 yards east of the farm is never in sight. Those woods are held by the en­emy… how peace­ful ev­ery­thing seems—hardly a ri­fle shot is to be heard, the ar­tillery have not com­menced to ‘strafe’ us yet, and with the frogs croak­ing lazily in the pond one might imag­ine one­self at home…

[The birds] seem rather to en­joy the crash and thun­der of an ar­tillery duel. Ri­fle fire, too, seems rather to please them, and of­ten when in the night-time there is a burst of it, the nightin­gales will com­mence to sing ex­ul­tantly, their ex­cite­ment seem­ing to in­crease as the fir­ing grows in in­ten­sity.

Al­ready our friends have stayed at the pond too long and… jour­ney to the farm—or rather, what re­mains of the farm, for it has been smashed to pieces by ar­tillery fire. Dead cows, calves and an oc­ca­sional pig lie about… the only build­ing still stand­ing is a cow­shed, known as ‘Sniper’s barn’. One loop­hole looks out over the Ger­man lines… A pe­riod of watch­ing through a pair of binoc­u­lars is fol­lowed by a great deal of ex­cite­ment, some fir­ing, and last of all a show of great ju­bi­la­tion… Things how­ever grow quiet again and once more the re­al­i­ties of war are for­got­ten for a time—this time a pair of swal­lows are the cause… It is lucky that the nest is built against a beam, for up­stairs (or rather through that shell hole on to the floor above) is a lit­ter of kittens, all as wild as hawks.

Once again our friends are care­fully scan­ning the en­emy’s lines for some sign of move­ment, when the at­ten­tion of one of them (in short, the writer) was at­tracted by the song of a bird that sounded un­usual and yet fa­mil­iar… Sud­denly it dawned upon the lis­tener that this song was none other than that of the golden ori­ole. In the hope of get­ting a pho­to­graphic record I put my cam­era in my pocket, and half an hour later finds us creep­ing through the tall oaks and un­der­growth. A nightin­gale is sing­ing away on our left, a dove nois­ily leaves her flimsy nest of twigs; fur­ther on a gar­den war­bler is sit­ting on her nest… A jay shrieks dis­cor­dantly and the golden ori­ole sings serenely on.

And yet the wood is shelled by the en­emy ev­ery day, sev­eral dead cows are rot­ting in the track through it and many of the trees are smashed by the ex­plo­sions… And where could the nest be? … the trunk of the tree is bare of branches for at least 20ft… There is only one thing to be done, and that is to climb an ad­join­ing tree… I can quite eas­ily see the en­emy’s trenches and won­der if the oc­cu­pants will spot me… I find the in­te­rior of the nest can just be seen. There are four glo­ri­ous eggs.

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