For a time, the war was for­got­ten

From the poet Ed­ward Thomas, who died fight­ing in France for English soil in 1917, to the many bird­watch­ing sol­diers on the West­ern Front, John Lewis-stem­pel ex­am­ines how Na­ture in­spired and com­forted our troops

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John Lewis-stem­pel ex­am­ines how Na­ture in­spired and com­forted our troops dur­ing the First World War

WHEN the poet Ed­ward Thomas, he of Adle­strop fame, was asked why he was vol­un­teer­ing to fight in the First World War, he picked up a hand­ful of English earth and said: ‘Lit­er­ally, for this.’

Thomas went to war for the fields and birds and trees of Bri­tain. In­deed, he died in the mael­strom of Ar­ras in 1917 for the peace and tran­quil­lity of Adle­strop in 1914. Per­haps, you might think, Thomas fight­ing for the land­scape of Bri­tain was the sort of grandiose sen­ti­ment ex­clu­sive to mid­dle, ur­ban-class po­ets? Not so—the Ed­war­dian love of Na­ture tran­scended class and rank, town and coun­try. Will Har­vey, a farmer’s son from Glouces­ter­shire also went to fight for the fields. He was so bound to the coun­try­side that, when serv­ing in France, he de­clared him­self ‘home­sick’, not for fam­ily or hearth, but ‘for my hills’ above the River Sev­ern.

As the writer E. B. Os­born ob­served in his 1919 bi­og­ra­phy of the gilded youth who fell in the war, The New El­iz­a­bethans, the English­man’s pa­tri­o­tism found its ‘best ex­pres­sion in what are re­ally acts of Na­ture-wor­ship’.

The gen­er­a­tion of 1914–18 fought for King and Coun­try­side, as much as they did King and Coun­try.

If Na­ture in­spired men to vol­un­teer, the Bri­ton on ser­vice on the West­ern Front lived in­side Na­ture. There was no es­cape from Na­ture a cen­tury ago. In the trenches, sol­diers ac­tu­ally in­hab­ited the bow­els of the earth, in di­rect and myr­iad con­tact with all the flora and fauna of Flan­ders and the Somme. ‘I have never lived so close to Na­ture,’ wrote Corp Fred Hodges. Nei­ther had other Bri­tons for gen­er­a­tions—cen­turies even.

The great mis­con­cep­tion about the First World War is that it was an un­re­lieved muddy, bloody hor­ror show. It was some­times a lovely war. Lt Richard Tal­bot Kelly was kept awake at Ploeg­steert (‘Plugstreet’ to the monoglot Tommy) not by Ger­man shells, but by the sing­ing of ‘scores of nightin­gales’.

For the sol­dier, the con­flict was a war much like any other war: 90% te­dium, 10% ac­tion. How to kill time was the sol­dier’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion.

Prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar pas­time in the trenches was watch­ing birds. Oddly, the

trenches of­fered un­ri­valled op­por­tu­ni­ties for or­nithol­ogy, be­cause ‘no man’s land’, the gap be­tween the com­bat­ants’ lines, was ef­fec­tively a bird re­serve with a barbed-wire perime­ter. To the joy of bird­ers in khaki, France and Flan­ders turned up species un­com­mon in Bri­tain. A correspondent for

COUN­TRY LIFE, Capt C. W. R. Knight, ven­tured into a per­ilous, shell-blasted wood to see and hear a golden ori­ole ( fol­low­ing

page): ‘For a time, the war was for­got­ten.’

How­ever, the bird that re­ally cap­tured the mind of the sol­dier on the West­ern Front was a drab-look­ing farm­yard thing: the sky­lark (pre­ced­ing page). Aside from its heav­enly song, it caused wide­spread ad­mi­ra­tion for its re­fusal to quit its habi­tat be­cause of war­ring man.

The bird even stayed put dur­ing the bat­tle of the Somme, caus­ing Sgt Les­lie Coul­son to verse: ‘A brown lark soars in song/through the tor­tured air/rent by the shrap­nel’s flare/over the trou­ble­less dead he carols his fill/and I thank the gods the birds are beau­ti­ful still.’

In the beauty and tenac­ity of the birds, sol­diers glimpsed hope, even the pres­ence of God. One Scot­tish miner turned sol­dier told his lo­cal news­pa­per: ‘If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be.’ He spoke for mil­lions in uni­form.

The Army un­der­stood full well the im­por­tance of birds—ca­naries were put in hos­pi­tal trains to cheer men up.

When Napoleon taunted the Bri­tish as a na­tion of shop­keep­ers, he was off the mark. The Bri­tish were a na­tion of gar­den­ers. The Front pro­duced its own flower shows, the great poppy and corn­flower fields on the scarred earth of Flan­ders, but the Bri­tish lent Na­ture a heal­ing hand: they gar­dened in the trenches. Tour­ing the Ypres Salient—about the dead­li­est sec­tor of the Front—in 1916, one jour­nal­ist noted: ‘So the sol­diers por­tioned off the rough earth be­side the board walk that ran par­al­lel to the ram­part, and first they had a lit­tle veg­etable gar­den, and next to it for beauty’s sake a flower gar­den.’ The gar­dener al­ways ex­pects to see his seeds grow. Gar­den­ing on the West­ern Front, on tiny plots ringed by stones at the back of the trench, was an ex­pres­sion of faith in the fu­ture.

In truth, the Bri­tish abroad on ac­tive ser­vice took all the Na­ture love and habits of home with them. Thus, the keep­ing of pets was uni­ver­sal, in­stinc­tive, of dogs es­pe­cially. You could al­ways tell a Bri­tish bat­tal­ion on the march by the num­ber of

‘love The Bri­tish abroad took all the Na­ture and habits of home with them

dogs ac­com­pa­ny­ing it. No an­i­mal was safe from be­ing made a pet by Tommy: cats, birds, rab­bits, mice and even, in one pla­toon, a three-legged rat called Al­bert.

Only a Gen­eral, such as Sir Tom Bridges, com­man­der of the 19th Divi­sion, could house a pet lion, how­ever. The an­i­mal, known as Poilu, was loved by the troops. He was, af­ter all, a real Bri­tish lion.

In war, the man-an­i­mal bond is in­ten­si­fied. Men risked their lives for their pets, for their horses. With­draw­ing un­der heavy ma­chine-gun fire in 1918, one of­fi­cer recorded: ‘Horse and rider crashed down in front of me… I or­dered the trooper to mount be­hind me. In­stead, he crawled to­wards his horse, which raised its head and was look­ing at him. He reached the horse, gently lifted its head on to his knee, and stayed put.’ Nei­ther di­rect orders, nor Ger­man bul­lets could per­suade the trooper to leave his dy­ing horse.

Touted by his­to­ri­ans as the first mod­ern war, the 1914–18 con­flict was more ac­cu­rately the last an­cient war. Some 750,000

horses served in the Bri­tish Army. Bri­tain’s se­cret weapon was never the tank, it was the mule, half-horse, half-don­key. Most of the am­mu­ni­tion de­liv­ered through the drown­ing au­tum­nal mud and rain of Pass­chen­daele was on the back of mules. They never gave up. With­out all the horses and mules, the Bri­tish army would have failed. Tommy knew it and pro­moted the horse from dumb beast to com­rade in arms. In the words of Pte Massie: ‘The warhorse is hon­est, re­li­able, strong. He is a sol­dier. He is a mate of ours—one of us.’ The Bri­tish sol­dier gives no higher ac­co­lade. The im­por­tance of Na­ture to the sol­dier, from giv­ing him a rea­son to fight to help­ing him en­dure, was un­der­stood by so­ci­ety. The most telling, mov­ing proof is in the Com­mon­wealth War Ceme­ter­ies, which were in­ten­tion­ally de­signed to be gar­dens or small parks of re­mem­brance rather than de­pos­i­to­ries for the de­ceased. Thus, they were planted with trees and flow­ers and, to pre­serve a spe­cial Bri­tish feel­ing, snow­drops and other na­tive flora. Go to Le Trou Aid Post Ceme­tery in the Pas de Calais, in through the lit­tle gate, past the weep­ing wil­lows, then you see pre­cisely what it is: an English coun­try gar­den abroad.

Our dead don’t lie in France, Flan­ders, Gal­lipoli or Egypt. They lie in cor­ners of for­eign fields that truly are ‘for­ever Eng­land’. The Na­ture lovers who went to war in 1914 for King and Coun­try­side and died for that cause are among Bri­tish trees

and flow­ers still.

John Lewis-stem­pel is the au­thor of ‘Where Pop­pies Blow: The Bri­tish Sol­dier, Na­ture, The Great War’, which won the 2017 Wain­wright Prize for na­ture-writ­ing

‘was The im­por­tance of Na­ture to the solider un­der­stood by so­ci­ety’

My fam­ily and other an­i­mals: the keep­ing of pets by the Bri­tish Tommy was near uni­ver­sal, with com­pan­ions rang­ing from a lion all the way down to a three-legged rat called Al­bert

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