Birdwatching in WWI
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.
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.