The intersection between British (mostly) soldiers in World War I and nature seemed almost fanciful when I picked this one up. Like, there have been so many millions of words lavished on WWI from every possible angle, every conceivable breadth and depth thoroughly mined for recording, remembering, analysing, hypothesising, learning.
I really enjoyed this though, and it’s not really that much of a stretch to connect war and nature, especially a war in which animals were used and kept by the army itself – their ratting cats and terriers, their horses, mules, donkeys and camels, their messenger pigeons and dogs. This is only one small facet of the soldier’s experience of non-human life on the front though. Plant life, insect life, birds, vermin, nuisances, all existed around and among the armies, and they were reassured, comforted, bothered, sickened by it, perceiving it through their own personal lenses as humans are wont to do.
Lewis-Stempel draws from soldiers’ diaries, letters, memoirs and poetry to paint a broad-ranging picture of varied and sometimes contradictory experience. Hunters and conservationists, nature appreciators and those unmoved by a skylark’s song at the crack of dawn, amateurs and professionals. Men who shot at crows and men who raised orphaned doves. And because amidst all the surreal humour and horror and strange quiet moments this is still the war, we find out the often sad fates of the poets and diarists.
It was fascinating to learn about what the Western Front was like when the war arrived, and fascinating to learn that the common knowledge about British foolishness over the use of cavalry wasn’t actually as foolish as it appeared, especially in theatres other than France. I enjoyed the poetry (Lewis-Stempel goes outside the usual canon of WWI poets, and explicitly outside the umbrella of “anti-war poetry” – we get a lot of poetry that is anti-war, but also a lot of pure straightforward nature poetry, poems that somewhat sentimentalise, poems that maybe glorify…). Between chapters Lewis-Stempel puts interstices, containing themed poetry, lists of observed wildlife, tables of statistics, odds and sods of interesting things.
One of the through-lines is the idea that nature is long-term and resilient, and the comfort this brought to the men at the front, and it was hard to read that without thinking of nature in modern Western Europe, and how it feels like this ancient cycle is no longer as it was during the war; there are hardly any wildflower meadows left, and I can’t imagine the woods are so thronged with golden orioles as they were then. Lewis-Stempel touches on this at the end, as I’d kind of feared (you know how you always dread the last episode of a nature documentary, because that’s the one in which you learn how threatened all of the wonders you’ve just witnessed are, and how little time we have to act before unrestorable things are lost?) but even this was surprisingly educational.
I didn’t realise how the war had affected the development of the British countryside and irrevocably changed its farming practices, and how the aftermath, of returning soldiers who needed to be housed, forever altered the layout of the land and its ownership, for good, ill and neutral. It really drove home how the past is never as far away from us as we like to think, and just how long it can take to break away from its effects, or correct what goes wrong by bad luck or chance.