Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel
Published by Orion Publishing Group on May 8th 2018
Genres: Animals, Birds, Ecosystems & Habitats, History, Military, Nature, Wilderness, World War I
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Where Poppies Blow is a worthy winner of the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize 2017. It was a book that started good and then just got better and better. It deals with the various ways in which soldiers in the First World War connected with nature. Its strength is that it is based around actual quotes (hundreds!) from soldiers, either in letters, poems, booklets, newspaper articles, even illustrations.
The positives of nature
It starts with the positive aspects, and the surprising fact that no man’s land was, effectively, a bird reserve with a barbed wire perimeter. “If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be” says one soldier. Experiences with birds, especially when they were singing in the lulls, lifted their spirits. “They offered a touch of Heaven in Hell.”
Lister-Stempel also covers the benefits of close connections with dogs, horses and mules on and beyond the Front Line. He describes the benefits of gardening in all its varied aspects, even in prisoner-of-war camps. The swathes of poppies of course made a huge impact, tinged by the fact that “the blood of soldiers is the fertiliser for the poppy.”
The negatives of nature
He also brings us down to earth. The accounts of infestations of lice and rats in the trenches are horrendous. The massacres of horses and mules are distressing. He even covers bacteria and viruses that brought death.
It seems rather miserable of me to criticize a book that ran off with such a prestigious award as the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize. However, I did feel a certain unease about certain elements of it. Lister-Stempel has a tendency to be over-patriotic. According to him, no-one cares about horses like the British. The British know and love their dogs better than anyone. The British can out-garden anyone. It began to get rather tiresome. And he points out with pride that a smaller percentage of British horses died on the front line than German horses, forgetting that it was British shells that were killing the German horses.
That aside, Where Poppies Blow is a wonderful book. I learned a lot that opened my eyes to conditions in the trenches. I certainly ended up with even more respect for these mostly young men who lived and died in such an appalling war.