‘Where Poppies Blow’
The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War
by John Lewis-Stempel
Weidenfield and Nicholson, 374pp £7.99 paperback
Reviewed by Jonathan Stones, Sherborne Literary Society
Private Norman Ellison wrote at Wailly, south of Arras: ’I cannot recollect any spring that thrilled me more. One felt that man might destroy himself and his civilisation through the incredible stupidity of war, but the annual re-birth of nature would continue. Here was something assured and permanent, an established truth in a world of alternating values.' In this impressively researched and often profoundly moving work, the immutability of nature, surviving even the wholesale destruction of the first industrialised war, is coupled by the author with his argument that ‘for the generation of 1914-18, love of country meant, as often as not, love of countryside’. He then interweaves these twin themes with the stories of the animals, plants and wildlife that thrived and died alongside the fighting men, as reflected in private diaries and memoirs of the War.
The book is divided into chapters dealing with specific aspects of the men’s' links with various aspects of nature, so there are chapters on horses, birds, insects, (mainly pestilential but also focussing on a fascination for lepidoptera in the trenches) rats and body lice (not for the squeamish), field sports, pets and gardening. The chapter on birding is especially fascinating to an irregular birder. In it for instance we meet Second Lieutenant C.C Baring who as a teenager, had won the RSPB's Silver Medal in the Public Schools Competition, and who assiduously kept a birding diary when in France and Flanders. At the end of an impressive list of his 'spots' for spring and summer 1917 we read: 'Cecil Baring, Queens Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) died of wounds in March 1918. He was twenty. His brothers Arthur, Charles and Reginald also fell.'
And even for non-gardeners the chapter on the extraordinary extent of the gardening which took place on or near the front lines throughout the War must surely be nothing less than life-affirming, as it was for the men themselves. There were trench gardens everywhere on the 150 miles of the British front line. Captain Lionel Crouch was no exception; he wrote home to his ‘Dear Old Dad’ at Chelmsford for some packets of nasturtium seeds, having already planted up a section of his communication trench. He told his father: ‘it is labelled ‘Kew Gardens’ – Do not pinch the flowers’. A solicitor in civilian life, he was killed on 21st July 1916 leading his men in an attack on the Somme.
The sense of terrible waste of life keeps looming through the upbeat phraseology; one of the ‘interstices’ by which the author separates his chapters is a list of the British and Empire naturalists who died on active service in the War, a mournful roster of talent and creativity unfulfilled. But the overall achievement of this extraordinary work is an uplifting and even optimistic account against the backdrop of calamity. Thanks to this book we shall remember them in a new way.