Where Poppies Blow: Q & A with John Lewis-Stempel

Posted on 8th November 2016 by Sally Campbell
Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s stunning Weeping Windows sculpture, which began at the Tower of London, brought home the full symbolic resonance of the poppy in our culture of remembrance. What is perhaps less known is how vital nature was to the soldiers who fought – from the morale-boosting pastimes it offered, such as gardening and fishing, to the animals that served as mascots and symbols of hope.  In his new volume, Where Poppies Blow, award-winning nature writer John Lewis-Stempel explores the fascinating, moving and surprising ways the natural world played a part in the First World War.  

Best known for his Wainright Prize-winning Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field, Stempel is an author and historian; he is also a farmer and advocate for chemical-free farming.  Waterstones Online’s Sally Campbell caught up with Stempel to find out more about his new book.
WW1 immediately conjures images of stark, muddy trenches and endless bloodshed, and yet one aspect many of us forget is the natural world that surrounded the soldiers as they fought. Can you give an overview of the role nature played in the soldiers’ lives?

When the poet Edward ‘Adlestrop’ Thomas was asked why he was volunteering for service in the Great War, he picked up a handful of earth and said, ‘Literally, for this’. Men went to fight for King and Countryside, as much as King and Country. Nature worship was almost a religion in Edwardian England. .

And when men arrived in France, they lived in trenches –inside the earth. ‘Certainly I have never lived so close to nature before or since’, Corporal Fred Hodges of the Lancashires observed, in words that spoke for the generation in khaki.

There was no escape from Nature 1914-18. Skylarks, say, buoyed men’s spirits -one Scottish miner said about the Western Front  ‘What hell it would be without the birds’- and some Nature killed the soldiers. We think of the Great War as the first modern war; actually, it was The Last Ancient War.  Disease, courtesy of rats and lice, was diabolical. 

But I suppose, above all else, Nature healed the mind. Men looked at the poppies growing in the mud and the swallows which shared their dug-out and saw hope – a future for themselves and humankind. 

The title of your book Where Poppies Blow echoes Colonel John McCrae’s iconic poem In Flander’s Field, how much did poetry inform your research? 

Poetry was the soldier’s medium 1914-18. Extraordinary, isn’t? From generals to privates they tried their hand at verse.  Most WW1 poetry, however, is ignored because it fails to fit the convention that the only important poetry is about pity. I delved outside the usual bran tub – and what windows into the soldiers’ souls were opened. Also a fresh, new way of looking at the war. 

There were not only British, French, Italian and German troops, there were of course troops from all over the world fighting in WW1; presumably each nationality brought its own unique attitude to nature?

By 1918 the British had already developed their famous love of pets – you could always tell a British battalion on the Western Front by the amount of dogs in attendance. This   led to considerable problems with the native French, who used dogs to pull carts and turn the wheels (by running inside them like hamsters) of mills and dairies. British Tommies ‘liberated’ the working dogs. Much to the chagrin of the French! 

The famous and famously contested story of the Christmas truce football match highlights one (occasional) form of respite for the troops, what nature-based activities helped the soldiers with rest and recuperation day-to-day?

Bird watching was a major time-passer for soldiers in trenches –No Man’s Land was by definition a good place for birds; there were long periods of all quiet on the Western Front, with soldiers complaining that the noise of nightingales kept them awake. Then, British countryside sports –fishing, hunting, partridge shooting- were transferred to the front wholesale, within reach of German guns. Really. 

Of course, the British are a nation of gardeners, so they made flower gardens in the trenches. Expired German shells were repurposed as flower pots. 

The British, eccentric? One cavalry colonel, after a section of German front was captured, turned it into a steeplechase. The trenches made bigger ditches than anything in the Grand National. 

The First World War was the first instance of tank warfare, however the military was still hugely reliant on animals at that time; can you talk a little about how animals were used during combat?

Britain’s secret weapon in The Last Ancient War was never the tank, it was the mule, imported from America, for transportation. 

There are immovable myths about the Great War, a prime one being that cavalry were ornaments. They were not. The first and last British actions on the Western Front were cavalry skirmishes, and in the Battle of Moreuil Wood 1918 the cavalry literally saved the day. 

Then there were the messenger dogs, the carrier pigeons, the canaries sent underground to detect fumes, the canaries in cages whose song spirited the injured on Red Cross trains…

Is there any one particular story of an animal at war that resonated with you more than others?

It is difficult not be moved by the story of Warrior, the horse of General Jack Seely, famously known as ‘the horse the Germans could not kill’. He survived everything thrown at him, and Seely was honest enough to admit that the courage of Warrior in battle inspired his own. 

There were cavalrymen like Seely who were so attached to their horses they considered them comrades. And would risk their lives for them. 

I should point that the suffering of the horses caused anguish in men entirely inured to human tribulations. On the Somme, Private Norman Gladden saw German bombs wound men and horses. One of the horses "dashed across the field with its entrails hanging down. Its awful bellow of pain, in protest against man’s inhumanity, was more shocking than all the rest of that afternoon’s nightmare."

Animals were also used as mascots; through your research you must have discovered some fascinating stories about the many lucky animals that brought comfort and reassurance to the troops?

Soldiers, like everyone, need love. Keeping pets, from mice to lions (in the case of General Tom Bridges), was both hobby and a means to give and receive love. Soldiers made a pet out of anything – even a three legged rat. 

Movingly, soldiers tried to repay the enjoyment and the comfort animals provided. Sergeant Bernard W. Gill, a medic, witnessed a skylark suffering a shrapnel wound at Gallipoli (‘Hell on Earth’); some men nearby took it in and fed it ‘heartily on biscuit crumbs made moist with water’.  When Lieutenant Edmund Vaughan’s platoon came across a dead pigeon at Ypres they gave it a Christian burial in acknowledgement of the pleasure and importance of birds to them. 

When visiting the sites of WW1 battles today, there must be a sense that nature has healed and that the landscape has forgotten; however, in what ways did WW1 alter the landscape permanently? 

Such is the power of Nature that it has largely healed the Western Front, though scars such as the Lochnagar crater and the turmoiled earth around Hill 60 testify still. 

Of course, in one significant way the memory of the war is kept alive in the landscape – in the necklace of war cemeteries on the Western Front. The British ones were consciously designed to be British gardens of remembrance. So the nature lovers who went to war in 1914 are among flowers still, in what are little corners of Britain in France. 

At thie time of year, millions of us have pinned facsimile poppies to our lapels as a symbol of remembrance that originates from the lines of Colonel McCrae’s poem. As you researched and wrote Where Poppies Blow, did another flower, plant or animal emerge as equally symbolic of the First World War to you?

The skylark. The bird’s refusal (‘brave’ was the adjective usually attached) to quit its habitat because of warring man caused widespread admiration. The bird even stayed put during the Battle of the Somme. Sergeant Leslie Coulson, 1/12 London Regiment, a soldier poet, paid his admiring respects to the magnificent tenacity of the Somme’s skylarks in poetry: 

From death that hurtles by
I crouch in the trench day-long,
But up to a cloudless sky
From the ground where our dead men lie
A brown lark soars in song.
Through the tortured air,
Rent by the shrapnel’s flare,
Over the troubleless dead he carols his fill,
And I thank the gods that the birds are beautiful still.

See what I mean about the quality of the poetry of ‘ordinary’ soldiers? 



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