During the 2020 pandemic many people are drawn to their gardens and the wildflowers of the countryside. In the First World War people created gardens close to the Front amongst the devastation of war.
GARDENS BEHIND THE LINES 1914-1918
Gardens Found and Made on the Western and Eastern Fronts
by Anne Powell. Published by Cecil Woolf Publishers, London, 2015.
This is a gem of a book and these extracts from Anna Powell’s introduction outline it perfectly:
“During the First World War the ground over which the battles were fought was devastated. Towns and villages lay in shattered ruins, trees were uprooted, fields and roads became quagmires of mud scarred with deep craters and shell-holes. However wild flowers grew on wasteland and waysides, larks flew and sang overhead. Bitter cold, torrential rain, and intense heat caused endless discomfort, but the seasons still provided solace to the weary soldier when he found an isolated copse with the promise of green shoots, blossom, flowers and soft fruit which had miraculously escaped destruction. Men wrote in nostalgia of gardens that they had loved at home; in wonder of gardens and orchards discovered in the grounds of deserted chateaux and demolished houses; and in delight at the gardens they created as sanctuaries of order and peace behind the lines”.
Many of the famous names of WW1 poetry, prose and letters such as Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon are included in this book with extensive entries from the letters of Alexander Douglas Gillespie, a Second Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who arrived in France in February 1915, whose letters are enriched with accounts of shell-torn orchards, pear, plum and cherry trees in blossom, bird’s song defying the sniper’s rifle, wild flowers found in desolate places. He created a garden in a trench outside his dug-out in the grounds of a shattered farmhouse and on 21 March asked his parents to send some nasturtium seeds.
April 2, 1915. I have been out in the orchard again, and have started a garden with a clump of sweet violets which I found growing on the bank of an old flooded trench. …..
May 2, 1915. I watered our garden; the pansies and forget-me-nots are growing well. I found a nest full of young hedge-sparrows too beside the stream.
On September 25, 1915, the first day of the Battle of Loos, Alexander Gillespie led his company of Highlanders in an attack near La Basse. They went through terrible fire and Gillespie was the only officer to reach the German trenches. He was seen to fall but his body was never recovered.
George Sedding, who also died at the Battle of Loos, served as a Lance Corporal in the 7th Norfolk Regiment and found time and enjoyment in collecting wild flowers.
June 27, 1915. … The gardens are full of great clumps of Madonna lilies and red and pink roses. One has to make trenches right across them sometimes which seems a great pity.
July 12, 1915 … We have been having a quiet time lately out of the trenches. There are lots of wild strawberries about here and jolly honeysuckle and willow-herb or rosebay.
July 23, 1915. … I enclose a bit of St John’s Wort of sorts, isn’t it? I picked some and stuck it in a glass jar with some crimson sorrel and hemp agrimony …
Siegfried Sassoon at the end of March 1916 went to the frontline for the first time in the Somme area. From the motor-bus to a month’s training course at Flixecourt he described‘green trees, apple-blossom nearly out – magpies in orchards, a small round pool in a gardenwith vivid green blades of iris growing along the edge’ and along a track from Flixecourt he walked into a bluebell wood where the birds were singing and the trees were newly in leaf.
The following day he heard a nightingale singing in the garden-copse close by
‘Chestnut– trees are in their wonderful new liveries of bright green; an apple–tree looks over an old lichened garden-wall, with blossom showing and pink buds’.
Glimpsed on the return journey ‘… vivid patches of clover-red, silver of daisies in lush grass, and the yellow of buttercups. Acres of green barley and rye and wheat and oats…leagues of rust-coloured ploughland’.
Amelie (Amy) Neville a VAD who worked at No.24 General Hospital, Étaples.
March 1916. The woods round here are perfect. We got heaps of wild daffodils. The undergrowth was all periwinkle and the anemones beginning … presently there will be a mass of hyacinths.
Captain T P Cameron Wilson, 10th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, arrived in the trenches atArmentières where he later found consolation in the world of nature amid all the destructionof war.
3 May 1916. It is utterly peaceful now. Evening, with birds singing their hearts out, larks over the fields, lilac in the garden of the poor ruined farms around us, a wonderful sea of brilliant yellow turnip-flower which smells like meadow-sweet, swallows flying high and happy …
Sister Katherine Luard, on an ambulance train in France
17 March 1917. No sign of any buds out. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin …
21 March … it is still snowing and yesterday was the first day of spring. It is unspeakably vile – biting wind – driving snow and deep slush …
Ivor Gurney, musician and poet, served with the 2nd/5th, Gloucestershire Reserve Battalion.
26 March 1917. On the march not many days ago we passed a ruined garden, and there were snowdrops, snowdrops, the first flowers my eyes had seen for a long time.
Edward Thomas enlisted and joined the Artists’ Rifles and was then commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery in August 1916. From a new position in an old chalk pit in France:
March 24th … A young copse of birch hazel has established itself … It is almost a beautiful spot still & I am now sitting warm in the sun with my back to the wall of the pit. Fancy an old chalk pit with moss & even a rabbit left in spite of paths trodden all over it. It is beautiful & sunny & warm – the chalk is dazzling. The sallow catkins are soft dark white …
Stephen Graham, 2nd Battalion Scot’s Guards which as a relief from the front-line trenches was sent to build a railway at Péronne. The battalion arrived in snow and pitched its tents in mud. Sergeant-Major Armstrong had been a gardener on a Scottish estate and he rescued plants and shrubs, including narcissus, primroses, tiger lilies, auricular, pansies, roses, Solomon seal, forget-me-nots from the abandoned and ruined houses in the town and gradually with the help of the men in their free time created various gardens.
Frances Ivens, Chief Medical Officer, Scottish Women’s Hospitals and an advance clearing station close to the front line near Royaumont which was a deserted, desolate and muddy evacuation centre where by the end of May 1918 staff and patients were enjoying fresh vegetables planted the previous year.
. … Between each hut were growing potatoes, lettuces, peas, cabbage etc., and in front of the laboratory, office and kitchen huts there were tiny flower gardens, tended by the staff of these huts with the greatest care …
After the war many thousands of the dead, some still unburied, were taken from original burial grounds and scattered graves, and were reburied in cemeteries planned by the WarGraves Commission. Sir Edward Lutyens designer/architect of some of these believed there was ‘no need for the cemeteries to be gloomy … Good use should be made of the best and most beautiful flowering plants and shrubs’.