Wildlife in the trenches
COUNTRY LIFE, December 18, 1915
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.