“Where Poppies Blow” – a reader’s response

A few months ago, this book was recommended to the WWI Bookgroup as giving an interesting perspective on life in trenches and the solace soldiers could find in gardening or just finding flowers in the garden of a ruined farmhouse.  Several members of the bookgroup have now read the whole book and, here, one of them offers her view.

By Jo Angell

“Where Poppies Blow” by John Lewis-Stempel is probably unique among the multitude of World War One books.  Its subtitle is “The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War”.  Through their poems, letters and recounting their activities away from the front line we learn much about those men.  It is striking how much closer to nature both officers and ordinary soldiers were in 1914 than most of us are today.

Stempel opens with a poem by John Masefield, “August 1914”:

How still this quiet cornfield is tonight!

By an intense glow the evening falls,

Bringing not darkness, but a deeper light;

Among the stocks a partridge calls.

Masefield was a Red Cross orderly during the war.

The book is full of poems written by men of all ranks who answered the call to serve and, though willingly in the army, often they remembered “Before” in their poems.

F.W. Harvey (Will), a farmer’s son, wrote:

 I hear the heart within me cry:

I’m homesick for my hills again –

My hills again!

(And his words were beautifully set to music by Ivor Gurney, himself a victim of the war.)

In the trenches, however, nature comforted them.  Returning from the front line dragging these anguished limbs

But hark! Joy – joy – strange joy

Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks;

Music showering on our upturned, listening faces.

Death could drop from the dark

As easily as a song –

But song only dropped.

A hundred years ago before our cities became so large, folk knew the names of plants and birds that, in the battlefields, often nested on shattered trees and the soldiers felt compassion for them.  On one occasion, trudging back from the front line, a platoon found a dead pigeon.  In silent unanimity, they gently picked up the pigeon and buried it, railing his grave with little sticks and chains of sedge grass, and in his coverlet of pimpernels we erected a tiny, white cross.

The Western Front was the most bird-watched war zone in history.  Stempel has a section of nine poems that soldiers wrote celebrating the birds that were so close to them.

In that World War, warfare moved from the past to an industrialised war, but, in 1914, crucial to an army were horses, mules and donkeys.  By 16th August 1914, 25,000 horses, mules and donkeys had been taken into military service.  By the autumn of 1918, there were more than 475,000 animals from draught horses, officers’ chargers, the cavalry horses to the mules, the supreme drudges that dragged all that was needed from guns to food up to the front line.  Some were horrifically injured.  On average, the British army lost 15% – 484,000 – every year.  Horses were shot by bullets, shattered by shells, overcome by gas, consumed by disease.

The men loved these animals, donkeys often becoming their pets as well as their load-bearers in Gallipoli and Palestine: That the donkey, Christ’s animal, should be part of Allenby’s march on Jerusalem was not without poignance.

Gardening, too, was a solace, men planting multitudes of flowers even in the trenches and around the temporary graves of the fallen.  They also had their pets: cats and rabbits and dogs rescued from the debris of destroyed villages.  At Gallipoli, fearing disease, men were ordered to shoot stray dogs.  One soldier, in a moving poem, describes how he could not, for the dog came

As one who offers comradeship deserved,

An open ally of the human race

And sniffing at my prostrate form unnerved

He licked my face.

Even in POW and internment camps in Germany where British, taken by war, lived in some degree of comfort, receiving parcels from home, gardens flourished and there were pets to love.

At last came the Armistice and a few men managed to smuggle their pets home but many dogs had to be abandoned.  Some horses came home but others were food for starving civilians.

For the first time after a conflict, a War Graves Commission was set up and beautiful cemeteries were established with the headstones identical for man of all ranks.

Stempel thus enables the reader to experience the emotions – joy ad sorrows – of humanity as the degradation of war.  Through their poems, letters and accounts of activities behind the lines as well as the actual slaughter, we learn what enabled them to remain sane and human.