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
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