How WW1 soldiers found hope in nature
The scorched battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele are etched into our collective memory of the First World War. No wonder, then, that many soldiers used nature as a form of solace during the conflict. Cultural historian Bethany Wyatt considers the emotional connections of servicemen to the flora and fauna they encountered while at war…
The remnants of a French orchard, devastated by war, are the focus of a poignant scene in the 2019 Hollywood film 1917. Its protagonists Tom Blake and Will Schofield pass through rows of cherry blossom trees, once vibrant with colour but now a marker of modern conflict. The setting embodies the film’s narrative that the First World War was a futile event, a tragedy.
Gazing at the trees, Schofield quietly observes, “They’ve cut them all down,” a metaphor for the soldiers slain during the conflict. But this scene also speaks to servicemen’s emotional connections to war landscapes beyond the subject of death. The orchard prompts Blake to recall civilian memories, as he is reminded of the cherry blossoms in his mother’s garden.
This moment reflects the real-life significance of the conflict’s landscapes in shaping British soldiers’ emotional experiences. Servicemen produced art and poetry inspired by nature on the war fronts, spent time collecting flowers and bird-watching, and compared home and conflict environments in their diary entries. Whether a distraction from military life or a source of comfort, the landscapes of the western front and beyond had a marked impact on the men who encountered them.
“The lover of nature on active service has many opportunities of making acquaintance with the natural history of his surroundings during his sojourn abroad.” This romantic sentiment may seem far from the popular imagery of the First World War, but its author, Private Jack Gunn, writing in his posthumously-published pamphlet A Bivouac Botanist, was not alone in his thoughts. Other men who recorded their experiences – in documents now held by the Imperial War Museum – discovered a similar satisfaction in observing war flora and fauna.
Memories of home
Second Lieutenant Denis Buxton wrote this sensory description of Gallipoli in 1915: “The scrub was deep and sweet scented, and the birds and flowers grand.” Soucy, a French village in the Aisne, inspired Laurence Symington in September 1914: “I am writing this on a little bridge across a little stream and the whole scene is peacefulness itself. Can’t seem to realise it all.”
Just like Blake in 1917, British soldiers found themselves linking military environments to domestic landscapes. One manifestation was the naming of western front sectors after recognisable landmarks. Reginald Bryan referenced a place called ‘Hyde Park Corner’, while JA Johnston’s diary describes a large open space north-east of Albert on the western front, that was christened ‘Hampstead Heath’, “no doubt by some homesick Cockney”. Bryan, a lance-corporal from Kingston, also compared a section of trenches in the Somme to the Hampton Court Palace maze.
Men also pondered the similarities between war and domestic landscapes. Gunn wrote that the Somme valley of summer 1915 bore “a striking resemblance to the chalk Downs of Kent”, with white roads “winding over undulating country, woods and cornfields, farmhouses and orchards”, although he noted the setting diverged from England with its sun-soaked fig trees and walnut trees lining country roads.
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Private TS Williams, of a Liverpudlian Pals Battalion, also commented on the Somme landscape of 1915. Of his impressions of Buigny l’Abbé that November, he recalled: “The surrounding countryside might well be taken for a typical English scene. It is a rather flat, undulating landscape covered with a patch-work pattern of fields.”
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Other war fronts could inspire such passages. Buxton’s admiration of Gallipoli transcended his naturalist interests – in a reflection of the classical education he received at Rugby School, he wrote to his father on 29 July 1915: “I have got an Iliad and enjoy it very much. It is far the best book for this part of the world.”
In another echo of home, Buxton wrote a diary entry describing a visit to a regimental aid post in scenic surroundings: “It is a lovely spot, the mound dotted with almonds, figs and olives, and covered with purple vetch, poppies, grass, etc, and great big white leaved thistles, like those we had in the garden at Chigwell.”
Beauty among the wastes
When servicemen were not communicating with their families, they were emulating their domestic practices. Buxton and Bryan sent plants home to their mothers, while the Scottish captain Andrew McCormick took great pride in his daily ritual of collecting flowers: “Most folks who served in France learned to have a great appreciation of the wild flowers which did so much to brighten the arid wastes left in the trail of war. Each evening I used to bring in a different kind of wild flower – dandelions, cornflowers, poppies – to grace our evening meal.”
In another description, the soldier’s civilian and martial identities are visually interlinked as he arranges a “bowl of emblematic Scottish flowers”; a display of French thistles wrapped in the tartan paper from a box of shortbread he received from Scotland.
Other men tended to their own gardens despite the fact these could only ever be temporary endeavours. When Lieutenant Alfred Ashurst Morris was due to move between sectors in Flanders, his thoughts turned to the garden he had created: “I had finished our garden. Just as the seeds are starting, and the nasturtiums are really going fine. Anyway, the fortune of war.”
Another popular pastime was bird-watching. Ornithologist Collingwood Ingram even questioned Royal Flying Corps pilots on the heights at which they had seen particular birds during patrols. He claimed to have questioned “a very large number of pilots and observers – possibly as many as seven to eight hundred”.
Ingram published his findings in 1919 in an article Notes on the Height at Which Birds Migrate, printed in Ibis (the International Journal of Avian Science). Buxton also wrote an article discussing his encounters with birdlife during the war: Notes on Birds Seen During the Gallipoli Campaign, published in the November 1916 issue of The Zoologist.
As the conflict progressed, abandoned battlefields began to change and this idea of the renewal of nature divided soldiers. The serviceman and poet John Masefield was concerned about the loss of martial landmarks, as were the veterans who passionately debated the matter of reforestation at Verdun in the 1930s.
Other combatants welcomed these changes. Bryan wrote: “Nature too was trying to cover up the effects of war – the damaged trees were all trying to cover up their wounds by sprouting green leaves.” A poignant diary extract discussing Ingram’s visit to Bourlon Wood in October 1918 – published in Hazel Strouts and Ernest Pollard’s edited edition of his diary, Wings Over the Western Front – reads: “The fresh splintered gashes in the trees, the crumbling brown earth of the shell craters and finally a row of khaki-clad corpses awaiting internment, all bore evidence of very recent strife. And yet this wood was still alive and sufficiently leafy to harbour a jay, and it certainly did not present that gaunt, blighted aspect of the woods of last year’s battlefields.”
But perhaps these comments in McCormick’s memoir most movingly represent the hope nature could inspire in the First World War’s soldiers and veterans: “Had I not been encamped for eighteen months on the battlefield of Arras, and contemplated the arid waste of chalk thrown up from trenches and shell holes could I have as keenly enjoyed the beauty of this autumn day […] surely it is one of the compensations of this war to be able to recall beautiful, inspiring things”.
Bethany Wyatt is a cultural historian and heritage professional. You can find her on Twitter at @WyattBeth
With thanks to the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum and the papers of JA Gunn (Documents 15990), 2nd Lieutenant DAJ Buxton (Documents 797), L Symington (Documents 13432), RH Bryan (Documents 13953), JA Johnston (Documents 12383), TS Williams (Essays on Nature Between the Battle Zones During World War One) (Documents 5033), Captain A McCormick (Documents 11906), Lieutenant AA Morris (Documents 14134)