Richard Mabey: Poppies and skylarks among the horrors of World War One
If the 17 million people slaughtered in that ‘war to end all wars’ were suddenly to tell us their feelings, they would prefer to be remembered by fields full of larks than military march-pasts.
Why is this of any relevance to a natural-history magazine? Because, as the poet Ivor Gurney (who fought as a private) wrote, men had been persuaded to fight partly “in order to preserve and somehow possess the beauties of the English countryside”.
Certainly, visions of the flowers and fields of home – and of how these were movingly echoed in the devastated French countryside – are powerful images in the memoirs and letters home of men at the Front.
The war artist William Orpen visited the Somme six months after 415,000 men had been killed there, and wrote: “I had left it mud, nothing but water, shell-holes and mud –the most gloomy abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, in the summer of 1917, no words could express the beauty of it. The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure – dazzling white. Red poppies, and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky was dark blue, and the whole air up to a height of 40 feet, thick with white butterflies.”
Poppies were ancient symbols of renewal after death. Back home Country Life patriotically denied rumours that this luxuriant new growth had been boosted by “the red rain of battle” (that is, dead British soldiers) and instead linked it to the fertilising effect of German explosives. But most Tommies found comfort in nature’s redemptive healing of a mutilated countryside. The wildflowers that sprang out of the morass became the currency of February 2014 one of the most poignant attempts to catch a glimpse of England amidst the horror: what became known as ‘trench gardening’. Common plants such as primrose, cuckoo pint and celandine were transplanted from the surrounding fields into little plots alongside the trenches and edged with scraps of battle debris.
The skylark was the most powerful natural symbol of the war. It turned eyes upwards.” But the skylark – whose ascending flight had been prophetically hymned by Vaughan Williams early in 1914 was the most powerful natural symbol of the war. It stood for escape, for the fields of home. It turned eyes upwards.
Ted Wilson, a 29-year-old teacher, wrote to his mother about a scene by a ruined village: “Then a bare field strewn with barbed wire – rusted to a sort of Titian red – out of which a hare came just now, and sat up with fear in his eyes and the sun shining red through his ears. Then the trench… Piled earth with groundsel and great flaming dandelions, and chickweed, and pimpernels, running riot over it… and over everything the larks.”
Infantrymen and poets on both sides – Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Franz Werfel, Edmund Blunden – were transported by the skylark’s song. Sergeant John Streets heard “A lark trill’d in the blue: and suddenly/…I fled with Shelley, with the lark afar,/ Unto the realms where the eternal are”. He died in the trenches in 1916.
My own view is this: that if the 17 million people slaughtered in that ‘war to end all wars’ were suddenly to tell us their feelings, they would prefer to be remembered by fields full of larks than military march-pasts. Instead the wars go on and the larks are disappearing.
Richard Mabey is one of Britain's best-loved nature writers. Listen to his two series of Mabey in the Wild, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, on iPlayer Radio: www.bbc.co.uk/radio