Bird­watch­ing in WWI

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

The many sol­diers who turned to bird­ing and wildlife to re­lieve the mis­ery of war

As we pre­pare to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the end of World War I, David Saun­ders re­mem­bers a gal­axy of young and not so young bird­watch­ers who were among the al­most 750,000 Bri­tish ser­vice­men who died. And Bird Watch­ing con­trib­u­tor Ed Hutch­ings pays a poignant visit to the Somme and re­veals how some of those fight­ing in the war turned to an­i­mals and birds for com­pan­ion­ship…

To stand alone on the Somme, as the late spring sun­shine rip­ples across the rolling hills and scat­tered copses, one feels far re­moved from the hor­rors that oc­curred there just over a cen­tury ago. In every di­rec­tion, near and far, your gaze set­tles upon the mov­ing, pris­tine ceme­ter­ies; row upon row of lime­stone graves and their at­ten­dant crosses of sac­ri­fice. The Somme is one of the most pow­er­ful and re­flec­tive of all land­scapes. I have sat alone on the Thiep­val Me­mo­rial at dusk and stood in a moon­lit ceme­tery lis­ten­ing to the mourn­ful cry of Stone-curlew. It never fails to move me. The Great War was like none that had come be­fore it. This was a to­tal in­dus­trial war. Nearly every parish in Bri­tain and many in the Empire felt its im­pact. Nearly a mil­lion Bri­tish men were killed and twice that wounded. In 1923, Win­ston Churchill said that “Vic­tory was to be bought so dear as to be al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able from de­feat.” To­day, with all of those who served gone, the whole episode is as dis­tant to us as the Bat­tle of Water­loo was to the sol­diers of World War I. Among the sons of Bri­tain that fought were men whose time was usu­ally spent in op­po­site sur­round­ings. Sir Ed­ward Grey, For­eign Sec­re­tary at the out­break of the war, would rather have been pon­der­ing birds than the diplo­matic caul­dron bub­bling away in Eu­rope: “In those dark days I found some sup­port in the steady progress un­changed of the beauty of the sea­sons. “Every year, as spring came back un­fail­ing and un­fal­ter­ing, the leaves came out with the same ten­der green, the birds sang, the flow­ers came up and opened, and I felt that a great power of Na­ture

for beauty was not af­fected by the War. It was like a great sanc­tu­ary into which we could go and find refuge.” For sol­diers in World War I, go­ing over the top was a com­par­a­tively rare event; much more fre­quently, they were bored and lonely and miss­ing their fam­i­lies. Need­ing an out­let for their af­fec­tion, many found it in the an­i­mal king­dom. An­i­mals be­came mas­cots – some Welsh bat­tal­ions had goats, some of the Scots had don­keys. And there were the an­i­mals and in­sects that ex­cited cu­rios­ity among men drawn into the army from the in­dus­trial heart­lands of Bri­tain; men who had lit­tle knowl­edge of, let alone daily con­tact with, wildlife. Civil­ians turned sol­diers ob­served the nat­u­ral world around them. Re­la­tion­ships formed with a strange and un­ex­pected range of an­i­mal life, from horses, dogs and cats to mon­keys and birds – even in one case, a Golden Eagle.

Bird theme

Birds of prey and corvids reg­u­larly shared the war with the men. The Rev­erend Mau­rice Mur­ray of the Royal Sus­sex Reg­i­ment wrote that: “There is a tame Mag­pie and a big Bel­gian dog, both of which live per­ma­nently in this camp mak­ing friends with each bat­tal­ion com­ing through.” The bird theme was also preva­lent with the French sol­diers, such as the pa­tri­otic song The Nightin­gale of Re­venge, writ­ten af­ter France’s de­feat in the Franco-prus­sian War of 1870. René Fonck – ‘Ace of Aces’ – the French avi­a­tor who ended the war as the top al­lied fighter ace, reg­u­larly trav­elled in the com­pany of his favourite White Stork – a gift from the Mayor of Lyon. A num­ber of prom­i­nent Bri­tish or­nithol­o­gists per­ished in the Great War. Philip Gosse joined the Royal Army Med­i­cal Corps and was the Bri­tish Army’s Of­fi­cial Rat Catcher Of­fi­cer on the Western Front. His book ‘A Nat­u­ral­ist Goes to War’ de­scribes in de­tail the flora and fauna of the bat­tle­fields: “Some of my read­ers may find fault with me for hav­ing com­par­a­tively so lit­tle to say about the ‘hor­rors’ of war and so much about beasts and birds. “I think the rea­son for this is largely that at the time the ‘hor­rors’ were so beastly, so ugly, that one got into the habit of putting them aside by con­cen­trat­ing on the birds, so that now, af­ter many years, the mem­ory re­tains the birds and to a large ex­tent has got rid of the rest. The man­gled corpse is for­got­ten, but the war­bler with its nest and eggs is re­mem­bered.” Christo­pher Alexan­der was the sec­ond of three or­nithol­o­gist broth­ers. The youngest, Ho­race, avoided con­scrip­tion as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor and the el­dest, Wil­fred, spent the war as a mu­seum cu­ra­tor in Aus­tralia. Christo­pher pre­ferred to en­list as a pri­vate and joined the Buffs in Feb­ru­ary 1916. Most of his train­ing was at Dover, where he had chased Dark Green Fri­t­il­lar­ies and watched Red-backed Shrikes in his

school­days, 20 years ear­lier. That June, he was sent to France where he fought on the Somme and in Flan­ders. In his brother’s obit­u­ary for Bri­tish Birds, Ho­race wrote that “When first he was in Flan­ders, even with­out binoc­u­lars, he had no dif­fi­culty in iden­ti­fy­ing all the Long-tailed Tits he saw as [sub­species]roseus.” Christo­pher’s ob­ser­va­tions on Flan­ders or­nithol­ogy, con­tained in his let­ters, in­cluded much of value. In­deed, since a young age, he had made daily de­tailed ob­ser­va­tions of bird­song, the first flower blos­som, the ap­pear­ance of cer­tain in­sects and the mi­gra­tory be­hav­iour of birds. Af­ter the Bat­tle of the Somme, he was trans­ferred to the Queen’s. Christo­pher was al­ways able to ban­ish some­thing of the grue­some sur­round­ings by look­ing and lis­ten­ing for birds and was of­ten re­warded by the sight of good things, such as a Green Sand­piper put up from a flooded trench, a Great Grey Shrike on the cheer­less downs at Christ­mas, or a bus­tard that flew over his camp in Feb­ru­ary 1917. Af­ter break­ing his leg on sen­try duty one night, he was in­valided to Blighty in March. He spent his con­va­les­cence at a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal in Mon­mouthshire, where he was able to see the com­ing mi­grants in April. Sev­eral let­ters to his broth­ers fol­lowed on his re­turn to France, end­ing with one in Septem­ber, in which he wrote of a Quail they had put up. To­gether with Pied Fly­catcher, Wood­chat Shrike and Melo­di­ous War­bler seen pass­ing a few days be­fore, it made 107 species for the year – an im­pres­sive to­tal un­der such con­di­tions. Christo­pher was se­ri­ously wounded at the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele on 4th Oc­to­ber 1917, and died the fol­low­ing day, aged 30. He is buried in Hooge Crater Ceme­tery.

Ex­quis­ite bird draw­ings

Colling­wood In­gram was an or­nithol­o­gist who re­fused to let any­thing in­ter­fere with his pas­sion for birds. When he was sent to war-torn France in De­cem­ber 1916, as a tech­ni­cian for the Royal Fly­ing Corps, he used it as an op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve the birdlife and to make ex­quis­ite draw­ings of what he saw. In his di­aries, Wings over the Western Front, In­gram com­bines his acute ob­ser­va­tions of birds and na­ture with poignant ac­counts of the young air­men who – of­ten all too briefly – be­came his friends. He fre­quently probed these pi­lots on the height at which birds fly, which re­sulted in a short pa­per af­ter the war. His di­aries are won­der­fully de­scrip­tive: “A par­tially cleared wood fills a hol­low just below this aero­drome. Among the tins and wire and dugouts that mark the re­cent Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion, birdlife is ex­traor­di­nar­ily plen­ti­ful…” In­gram made his or­nitho­log­i­cal mark at home and abroad. Be­fore the war, he col­lected in Ja­pan, and for his work there he was made an Hon­orary Mem­ber of the Or­nitho­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Ja­pan. He also recorded the first Marsh War­bler breed­ing in Kent. Colling­wood In­gram sur­vived the war and died a cen­te­nar­ian in 1981, hav­ing been a mem­ber of the BOU for 81 years – a record that stands to this day. Po­etry flowed from the war, much of it sprin­kled with avian ref­er­ences. Larks pre­dom­i­nate as they of­ten do within the psy­che of the Great War. John Mc­crae’s In Flan­ders Fields, the most fa­mous poem of the war, finds “The larks, still bravely singing, fly/scarce heard amid the guns below”. Other po­ets, such as Leslie Coul­son, wrote: “From the ground where our dead men lie/a brown lark soars in song/through tor­tured air/rent by the shrap­nel’s flare/over the trou­ble­some dead he car­ols his fill/and I thank the gods that the birds are beau­ti­ful still” and Henry Simp­son penned: “There was bloody grime on their light, white feath­ery wings/ (Hear how the lark still sings)”. Poignantly, Isaac Rosen­berg wrote af­ter re­turn­ing from a night pa­trol: “But hark! joy – joy – strange joy/lo! heights of night ring­ing with un­seen larks/mu­sic show­er­ing our up­turned list’ning faces/death could drop from the dark/as eas­ily as song/but song only dropped…”

The Black­bird poet

Black­birds fea­ture heav­ily, too. Fran­cis Led­widge was known as the ‘poet of the Black­birds’ as he of­ten in­cluded them in his work: “And, God! to hear the black­bird song once more”. An­other of his po­ems in­cludes a de­light­ful ditty in­volv­ing an­other fa­mil­iar species: “This is a song a Robin sang/this

morn­ing on a bro­ken tree/ It was about the lit­tle fields/that call across the world to me”. Robert Vernède wrote pro­foundly that “A while ago a black­bird spoke/ He didn’t know the world’s askew”. The Honourable Ju­lian Gren­fell DSO also penned about this thrush, as well as oth­ers: The nat­u­ral­ist Ed­ward Thomas made ref­er­ence to owls, too: “All of the night was quite barred out ex­cept/an owl’s cry, a most melan­choly cry”. Richard Den­nys wrote of corvids: “’War!’ – called the fright­ened rooks and flew/from the crim­son East to the crim­son West”. Other hum­ble species ap­pear in a poem by WN Hodg­son: “The fool­ish noise of spar­rows/and star­lings in a wood – Af­ter the grime of bat­tle/ We know that these are good”. Birds were clearly a form of ther­apy for sol­diers.

There are heartrend­ing sto­ries of men crouch­ing in trenches in prepa­ra­tion to ad­vance with the song of Nightin­gales pour­ing forth over the dawn. The birdlife of the Western Front bat­tle­fields comes across as re­mark­ably healthy at the time of the Great War and con­tin­ues to do so a cen­tury on. Scarce Bri­tish farm­land birds such as Corn Bunt­ing, Grey Par­tridge and Tur­tle Dove are still com­mon here. The same goes for wood­land species, such as Honey Buzzard, Lesser Spot­ted Wood­pecker and Red­start. Black Red­start song jan­gles from the most ur­ban of rooftops and Pere­grines nest on Ypres’s re­built cathe­dral. Nightin­gales con­tinue to sing from the wood­land edges of the Somme. What bet­ter mem­ory to serve the fallen.

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