Friday 26 May 2017

Review: Where Poppies Blow

Where Poppies Blow Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There has been awful lot of history written about the horrors of the First World War, we have first-hand accounts from those that fought and suffered, writers who composed some of the most poignant poems and a raft of historical documents and archaeological reports that build a picture of the time. Even though the war dragged on for four years, not all of it was spent fighting. The soldiers had time away from the front lines and the misery of the trenches and when they did they found they could draw comfort from the similarities in the north French landscape to the countryside that they had left behind and that some would never see again.

For it is for the sake of the wolds and the wealds
That we die

Whenever the troops had a spare moment they would take time in between the bombs to observe the birds that were trying to eke out an existence in the war too. It was one of the most popular hobbies of soldiers. Flowers played a large part in soldier’s lives too, some had time to plant and tend gardens, but the image of poppies and cornflowers blooming after the devastation of war is one of the enduring images that remained with the shattered soldiers leaving the battlefields. Some of the officers also hunted, spending hours chasing what little wildlife was left in the fields, some made rods to fish, other took the easier option of dropping bombs in the rivers. Not only did the British Army empty the fields of the workers, they took the horses too, and when they had almost all gone, they shipped them over from Canada. The soldier’s relationship with their equine friends was made closer by the perils of war. In total eight million horses, donkeys and mules died during the conflict, a horrendous number. There were also a huge number of other animals at the front too, the battalions had their mascots which varied from the fairly common dogs, to the less common goats to the frankly unusual orang-utan and cows. Rats and lice were endemic in the trenches causing yet further misery to those knee deep in mud.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

Lewis-Stempels book is a very different take on the usual histories of the First World War. It is full of personal stories of the way that the soldiers saw nature and how it gave them the motivation for them to carry on in the darkest of times. The prose is almost secondary in this book, as there are so many poems and anecdotes about the natural world around them that he has collected together. It is not all grim reading, there are some really positive parts to the book, but I thought the list of those scientists and naturalists that had fallen in action was most moving as it showed how much experience and knowledge that we lost just from one small sliver of society. The war that had taken so many of the fit and able men showed that they still had their humanity.

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