Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War by John Lewis-Stempel Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20
But unlike the shorter, kinetic engagements of today, the First World War was a static affair with advance and retreat clearly delineated by the line of trenches that scarred the landscape of Western France. What, then, occupied the minds and hearts of those brave soldiers – and Britain deployed five million between 1914 and 1918 – as they waited for the whistle-shriek commanding them to “go over the top”?
According to John LewisStempel’s remarkable book, one often-overlooked subject managed to offer beauty, distract the mind and give much-needed succour: nature. In Where Poppies Blow the nature writer, historian and farmer presents us with a beautiful and meticulous account of soldiers’ relationship with nature, whether in the quagmires of Western France or the deserts of Syria and Palestine. A raft of first-hand accounts are inter-spliced with poems from the front. “Nature” is of course a broad subject.
Lewis-Stempel explores the valued contribution of the cavalry horse and, when recounting magnificent charges in Syria, he excels at dispelling the myth that the use of cavalry was killed off by the machine gun. He also considers the role of dogs. The British love of pets was well established by 1918 with dogs often accompanying battalions as mascots. So there was tension with French troops who would treat dogs as mules to pull carts and power mills.
Over the last hundred years Britain’s demographic landscape has changed. The shift to work in towns and cities has broken a generations-old connection to the countryside. But in 1914 it was common for whole units to come from a single rural village or market town. M any of these men from the countryside embraced birdwatching, keeping ornithological records and writing poems about birds to while away the ennui. Of special note was the skylark which became a constant companion thanks to its incredible ability to ignore the bombardment of artillery shells during the Somme.
Vegetable growing was another important pastime, with soldiers writing off to wives and sweethearts requesting seeds to plant in the fertile soil. We also explore less savoury matters. In one chapter we learn about rats a foot long and the diseases, from lice and other parasites, that accounted for 980,980 hospital admissions and 8,988 deaths among British troops in France. Even the mighty trench itself cannot be overlooked as soldiers literally lived inside the earth.
“Certainly I have never lived so close to nature before or since,” said Corporal Fred Hodges of the Lancashires. Most of all though, says Lewis-Stempel, nature “healed the mind”. Men gazed at poppies and took hope that, whatever tomorrow may bring, something beautiful would remain. This book, which recounts the lives of our frontline soldiers from the ground up, is a truly wondrous and original work with an appeal far beyond military history.