Wonder of nature survived amid the horrors of warfare
JUST over 100 years ago my Grandpa, William Wood, was saddling up his horse, fettling his lance and polishing his brasses, the day-to-day stuff you would expect of a 12th Lancer.
Riding into war was probably far from his mind. However, everything changed when the Great War kicked off, and both Will and his horse, Floss, boarded a troop ship and headed for France. He never spoke about the carnage and his stories centred on the futility of sending horses into this ‘new kind’ of war, his efforts to look after Floss and how he was fascinated by the countryside and the wildlife in it.
He was especially interested in how the land could heal itself and that the animals could carry on their lives in spite of the war raging all around them.
He was a countryman, like me, my dad, and my sons and his eyes and ears were awake to the sounds and smells, some familiar, some exotic; the birds, trees, butterflies and the flowers of Flanders Fields.
I loved the stories of his marches through Belgium and France, and it was during these conversations that his love of the natural world shone through.
In and around the Somme, he spent many weeks waiting ‘behind the lines’, always ready at a moments notice to be called forward, and it was during this time that his horse, Floss, was requisitioned for other duties. Unlike the horse in Morpurgo’s, ‘Warhorse’, Floss was spared the rigours of hauling canon, and she was used for carrying mail to the front.
Grandpa talked about dragonflies on the marshes, swallows catching insects above the water, and the splash of water voles, as they dived beneath the margin willow and water cress; whether they drowned out the distant sound of gun-fire and bomb blasts is another thing.
He joked that they were given no spoons in their field kit, so they had to shoot spoonbills and use their bill to eat soup.
I think he was joking but, he also said that the abundance of ducks, and the like of storks, bitterns and herons, meant that they never went hungry, and that part of the tale is very likely to be true.
With a bit of research I believe he was somewhere in the region of the Cavins Marshes, halfway up the Somme River Estuary, an area where saltwater meets fresh.
It was here a century ago that sheep grazed on the salt marsh, as they still do today, and a tick on my bucket-list, is to sample the meat of this particular animal as my Grandpa, a butcher for 50 years, once said: ‘We managed to nab a couple of the sheep that fed on the brackish lagoons; it was the finest meat I’ve ever tasted’.
That recommendation is good enough for me.
He made it back from France, but didn’t have much time to relax.
He was soon packed off to Ireland around the time of the Easter Rising, which of course was exactly one century ago.
I have a postcard which he sent to his brother from Dublin, which depicts the damage to O’Connell Street, and thereby starts another story.
All these years later, both my dad and grandpa have long gone but life goes on, as in the Somme Marshes, and I am now a grandpa myself, to the beautiful Orlaith Edna Wood, daughter of my son Culain and partner Chloe.
Grandpa Sean, it’s got a nice ring to it.
The Laughing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Padfield, Glossop
●● William Wood, grandfather of Sean, saw action and plenty of nature as he served on the Western Front during the First World War