Dear Readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book as much as I have this one. Lewis-Stempel ranges across everything from the way that the British love of nature inspired so many of the soldiers involved in World War I to the origins of the word ‘chat’ (of which more later) to the uses and abuses of animals , both wild and domesticated, during this conflict. I learned so many things that I didn’t know, and I’m pretty sure there’s something to make even the most ardent military historian wrinkle their forehead.
I started to read the book thinking that it would surely have been the officers from the shires and the soldiers from the villages who would be most enamoured of the fields and woods of home, but interestingly it seems that even Tommies from the cities felt a deep nostalgia for the countryside – Lewis-Stempel quotes many of them, and points out that the city dwellers of this generation often spent their holidays picking fruit or hops. There seems to have been a more or less universal longing for the fields of home which was wrapped up in the terrible home-sickness and trauma that many of these young men experienced. And when they were on the Western Front, the croaking of frogs from the shell-holes, the larks who ascended as soon as the guns fell silent, the song of a nightingale all assumed a kind of spiritual importance, a reminder of what was being fought for. It also seemed to jolt men out of their anxiety and trepidation, if just for a moment. Private Stephen Graham recalled:
“I had been sent to a neighbouring headquarters with a message, and at noon I sat for a while beside a high hawthorn on a daisy-covered bank. The war ceased to exist; only beauty was infinitely high and broad above and infinitely deep within. Birds again sang in the heavens and in the heart after a long sad silence, as it seemed”
However, it wasn’t just the wild animals that gave solace during World War I, but the domesticated ones too. Cages of canaries were placed in ambulances, to lift the spirits of the wounded, although as these little birds were more susceptible to gas-poisoning than humans they often didn’t last for very long. Stempel-Lewis has a whole chapter on the horses that were requisitioned for the war, and the relationships that were formed between them and the men who looked after them. Some men would risk their lives to be with their animals, as in the excerpt below:
“I was riding when one of the troop’s horses was badly hit by MG (machine gun) fire. Horse and rider crashed down in front of me. The horse lay on its side and the trooper, unhurt, had rolled clear. Kicking one foot off the stirrups I ordered the trooper to mount behind me. Instead, he crawled towards his horse which raised its head and was looking at him. He reached the horse, gently lifted its head on to his knee, and stayed put. I again ordered him to mount and drew my pistol, saying I would shoot the animal. He said nothing, just looked up at me, then down to the horse and continued to stroke its head. From the look in the horse’s eyes, I think it knew it was the end, and I also think it understood that its master was trying to give it what comfort he could. I didn’t shoot. Bullets were still smacking around me, and the squadron was almost out of sight. I said something to the effect of ‘Well, it’s your funeral’ and trotted to regain my place. The trooper caught up with the squadron later; he had stayed with the horse until it died. By all laws of averages, he should have stopped one too.”
But not all animals were as well-loved. The trenches were running with vermin, in particular rats, flies and body lice. The latter were known as ‘chats’, derived either from chattel (something carried about) or from the Hindi word ‘chatt’, meaning a parasite. Men would spend hours between battles picking the lice off of one another’s bodies, and this came to be known as ‘chatting’, something to remember next time you meet a neighbour for a ‘chat’.
Lewis-Stempel also describes how gardens were made in the grounds of abandoned houses, in prisoner of war camps and even in the trenches themselves, with spent Howitzer shells being used as flower pots and celery being grown in the dark spots at the very bottom. At the Ruhleben Interment Camp in Germany, the British prisoners asked for (and got) affiliation with the Royal Horticultural Society in England, and were able to hold their own fruit and produce shows. When the blockade of Germany started to really hit food availability, the prisoners dug out a vegetable garden which eventually grew 33,000 lettuces and 18,000 bunches of radishes. Lewis-Stempel remarks that ‘the diet inside the perimeter fence was in all respects superior to that outside it’. Seeds had been provided following an RHS appeal to British nurseries, and the seeds were forwarded inside Red Cross parcels. It seems that, whatever the circumstances, gardening was both a solace and a way of keeping body and soul together.
Perhaps the part of the book that gave me most pause, though, was Lewis-Stempel’s point that although the trenches and the destruction of the First World War were eventually largely healed by nature’s propensity to grow back (though you might want to be careful digging up a field on the Western Front even now – farmers regularly uncover live munitions), the country that was so beloved by those who fought was already in the process of despoliation that has continued to this day. 450,000 acres of woodland were destroyed to provide timber for the war effort. Ancient pastureland and water meadows were ploughed up to provide land for growing crops – by 1917, the U Boat campaign had reduced the country’s food stores to less than 6 weeks. After the war, the lack of manpower for agricultural labour led to increased mechanisation. The National Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England were both formed after the war, on the basis that this ‘fair land’ was what the soldiers had been fighting for. And certainly, for many of those who had suffered during the First World War, there was a sense of gratitude towards nature. Here is a final quote, from Captain Carlos Paton Blacker, who wrote a memoir of his wartime experiences called ‘Have you Forgotten Yet?’
“I became aware of a sense of awe and gratitude to the trees, to the forest, but above all to the rooks. The feeling of gratitude to the rooks has often come back since. Indeed it comes back every time I hear these birds contentedly calling to each other round their rookeries in spring. It comes back now as I type these lines“.
I highly recommend this book, as you might have guessed.