‘For the British soldier in the First World War, nature was always a matter of life and death’: John Lewis-Stempel
When I was working on ‘Gabriel’s map’, and later on ‘The natures of war’ (both available under the DOWNLOADS tab), I immersed myself in the ways in which industrialised war violated the rural landscapes of Belgium and France on the Western Front during the First World War. But I also noticed there (as in other war zones) the redemptive possibilities of ‘the natural world’:
A few miles behind No Man’s Land lay an agrarian landscape that would have been familiar to most European troops – though not to the considerable contingents from other continents – and many of them took refuge in a reassuring rurality whenever they were removed from the front line. Moving up to the trenches from Belancourt on a glorious June afternoon in 1916 the young Max Plowman exulted in the scene:
‘The tall corn is ripening, and between its stalks poppies and cornflowers glow with colour. Through the valley we are descending a noisy stream finds its way, and on the hills beyond, great elm-trees stand like wise men brooding. It is a lush green country, full of beauty. The war seems far away.’
Pastoral conceits like these – and they were by no means uncommon – were testaments to the horrors that closed in as the troops neared what Plowman later called ‘the palsied zone’. As he and his men marched towards Fricourt, they crossed the old front line. ‘The country here is stricken waste: the trees that formed an avenue to the road are now torn and broken stumps, some still holding unexploded shells in their shattered trunks, others looped about with useless telegraph-wire.’ Later still, he described the sun glaring down ‘on earth that has lost its nature, for, pitted everywhere with shell-holes, it crumbles and cracks as though it has been subject to earthquake.’ As the landscape ‘lost its nature’ – a loss for which the all too human violence of war was responsible – so it also appeared less human. Yet even there, in the midst of all that, it was still possible to find sights and sounds that evoked the pastoral: the cornflower blue sky, the crimson rose, the fluting song of the lark. But these were all fleeting moments, and when he was finally relieved Plowman wrote that ‘it is cheering to be going westward: the farther you go in this direction the more human the world becomes.’ The opposition between the ‘un-natural’ and the ‘human’ really pits the savage against the domesticated, but passages like these are double-edged. They form a repertoire of ‘Arcadian resources’ in Paul Fussell’s resonant phrase, which function as what he saw as a characteristically ‘English mode of both fully gauging the calamities of the Great War and imaginatively protecting oneself against them’. Protection here is about more than solace, I think, because opposing these imaginative geographies works to repress the transformation of the domesticated into the savage which confirmed what Claire Keith saw as ‘the frightful interdependence of human death and environmental death’.
Those redemptive, even Arcadian moments have now been gathered and pressed within the pages of a new book: John Lewis-Stempel‘s Where Poppies Blow: the British solider, Nature, the Great War (2016):
Where Poppies Blow is the unique story of the British soldiers of the Great War and their relationship with the animals and plants around them. This connection was of profound importance, because it goes a long way to explaining why they fought, and how they found the will to go on.
At the most basic level, animals and birds provided interest to fill the blank hours in the trenches and billets – bird-watching, for instance, was probably the single most popular hobby among officers. But perhaps more importantly, the ability of nature to endure, despite the bullets and blood, gave men a psychological, spiritual, even religious uplift.
Animals and plants were also reminders of home. Aside from bird-watching, soldiers went fishing in village ponds and in flooded shell holes (for eels), they went bird nesting, they hunted foxes with hounds, they shot pheasants for the pot, and they planted flower gardens in the trenches and vegetable gardens in their billets.
In an interview, the author explains:
When the poet Edward ‘Adlestrop’ Thomas was asked why he was volunteering for service in the Great War, he picked up a handful of earth and said, ‘Literally, for this’. Men went to fight for King and Countryside, as much as King and Country. Nature worship was almost a religion in Edwardian England.
And when men arrived in France, they lived in trenches – inside the earth. ‘Certainly I have never lived so close to nature before or since’, Corporal Fred Hodges of the Lancashires observed, in words that spoke for the generation in khaki.
There was no escape from Nature 1914-18. Skylarks, say, buoyed men’s spirits -one Scottish miner said about the Western Front ‘What hell it would be without the birds’- and some Nature killed the soldiers. We think of the Great War as the first modern war; actually, it was The Last Ancient War. Disease, courtesy of rats and lice, was diabolical.
But I suppose, above all else, Nature healed the mind. Men looked at the poppies growing in the mud and the swallows which shared their dug-out and saw hope – a future for themselves and humankind.
You can capture exactly that sense in some of John Masefield‘s poetry, written when he was serving as a medical orderly – the book begins with his ‘August, 1914’ – and you can read more in the Preface and the first chapter of Where Poppies Blow (the splendidly titled ‘For King and Countryside’) available here. As the remark I’ve used as my epigraph makes clear, though, there was always (and remains) a desperately dark side to the entanglements with a militarised nature.