Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction. A recent episode of Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4 described the way in which soldiers in the trenches during the First World War frequently passed their time by growing flowers and vegetables. Whilst soldiers received medals for bravery, they were also awarded medals for their allotments. The gardening provided the embattled combatants with a source of fresh vegetables and a distraction from the horrors which surrounded them. Seeds sent from home ensured a continuing supply to satisfy the constant demand for their life-giving greenery. Competitions for the best home-grown produce guaranteed its quality. Apparently one long trench on the edge of no-man’s land was also known for its excellent celery. How many of the men who went “over the top” carefully watered their plants before they left for a fight from which many never returned? How often did a withering stick of celery indicate that the chaos of no-man’s land disguised the remains of someone for whom a vegetable had been a symbol of a vanished normality?
Still amidst the trenches of WWI, in May 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae, an army doctor, prepared the battlefield burial service for his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, an artillery officer killed at Ypres. McCrae commented, not on the manner of his friend’s death, but on the scarlet poppies which grew everywhere, defying the violence and bloodshed. Amidst the terrible scenes which McCrae had witnessed, he had also noticed the flowers and the bird song. In the squalor, suffering and carnage of the trenches, it took a special kind of insight to see the loveliness of a world beyond. As he marked a tragic loss of life, McCrae gave us a poem which has become iconic as we remember the sacrifices of the First World War.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
Less than three years later, poppies also marked McCrae’s grave. In fact he died almost seven months to the day after my great-uncle, Austin Owens, and is buried in the same cemetery in Wimereux. Both now receive the care and attention of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
John Bradburne was an officer with the 9th Gurkha Rifles who was subsequently murdered by guerrillas in Zimbabwe in 1979. During WWII, he fought in Malaya and Singapore. In Burma, as a member of a special force called the Chindits, he was specially trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines. His courage earned him the Military Cross...but he was also remembered for his awareness of every flower, insect and bird in the field of battle. In Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known, and working with the leprosy patients for whom he was killed, Bradburne wrote more than two thousand poems, many of them about the beauties of the natural world around him.
“Nature is wonderful, worthy of praise –
stars in the night and sun in the days,
snows on the mountains, streams in the vales,
birds of the forests and seafaring whales,
horses and elephants, fishes and snails...”
We are still learning of the monumental preparations made for the apparently inevitable invasion of Britain during the Second World War. The strength of the German army appeared ready to overwhelm Britain’s rapidly diminishing resources. Men and women were secretly enlisted to create a partisan force which would hopefully delay an invasion for at least two weeks. Vowed to silence, they dug trenches and positioned booby-traps, knowing that, should the German occupation occur, their life expectancy was very limited. In the midst of life, should the need arise, they prepared to lay down their own lives for the survival of others. Such was the secrecy with which they worked that their heroic efforts are only being revealed 70 years later. Yet, some years ago, surrounded by the beauties of the Surrey countryside and the silence of a summer afternoon, as the sound of horses passed by on the nearby road, it seemed incredible that this was also a hidden training location for these valiant members of our own Resistance. What stories might the trees have told had they been able to speak?
Elsewhere, on the banks of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, a hexagonal pillbox is today smothered with dandelions, rosebay willow herb, campion and meadowsweet. There, too, soldiers were concealed, ready and waiting lest their guns must find and larger victims than the occasional rabbit or pheasant.
During my recent visit to the Holy Land, our group of four Catholic journalists visited the ruins of Bethsaida, a town whose name is so familiar to Christianity. As we trod the ancient road which, surely, was well-known to Jesus and his disciples, our guide pointed out a flowering bush: “This was possibly the type of thorn used for the crown of thorns”, he explained as he indicated the inch-long protruding spines.
The loveliness of creation held other stories, some ancient and others, more recent. Those same hills where Jesus once walked were pitted with Syrian bunkers from which snipers overlooked the tranquil beauty of the Sea of Galilee. Before Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights in 1967, the beautiful hills were dotted with such deadly emplacements. One concrete bunker in particular resembled the ideal hide for any birdwatcher. Its uninterrupted view of the surrounding countryside is, today, an ornithologist’s dream come true. Yet, when it was built, a good sniper with a high quality lens could apparently see into houses at the edge of the lake. Tangles of grasses and a profusion of colourful wild flowers could not totally hide a barbed wire fence with its warning of undetected mines. In Belgium, too, ordnance from the First World War is still being found and defused almost 100 years after the war ended.
The natural world is able to overcome many of the worst effects of humanity’s attempts at apparent self-destruction. Chernobyl will be off-limits to most people for countless years to come. Yet naturalists report a flourishing wildlife, which thrives in spite of the high levels of radiation.
On 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, approximately 15,000 British troops died in what is still a world record for a one-day engagement. During a period of six months, British and French troops advanced about 8 miles from their original positions. There were an estimated 420,000 British casualties, including my great-uncle and many of his Liverpool Pals Battalion. There were a further 200,000 French, and approximately 500,000 German, casualties. Today, the peacefulness of the multinational war cemeteries hides the personal trauma of the individuals and families concerned. Flowers have replaced the craters made by exploding shells and bombs.
Yet the world seems to have learned little. Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Nigeria, Sudan and the Central African Republic are only some of the places where people currently confront each other in anger. Millions search for peace, but at a price. For some, it means peace on their terms and the word become synonymous with oppression, rather than freedom. People do not have to die in order for poppies to grow and look beautiful. When so many people long for peace, why is it so difficult to achieve? When will humanity appreciate creation’s loveliness – in peace?