Published by Orion Publishing Group on May 8th 2018
Genres: History, Military, World War I, Nature, Animals, Birds, Ecosystems & Habitats, Wilderness
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Winner of the 2017 Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize for nature writingThe natural history of the Western Front during the First World War'If it weren't for the birds, what a hell it would be.'
During the Great War, soldiers lived inside the ground, closer to nature than many humans had lived for centuries. Animals provided comfort and interest to fill the blank hours in the trenches - bird-watching, for instance, was probably the single most popular hobby among officers. Soldiers went fishing in flooded shell holes, shot hares in no-man's land for the pot, and planted gardens in their trenches and billets. Nature was also sometimes a curse - rats, spiders and lice abounded, and disease could be biblical.
But above all, nature healed, and, despite the bullets and blood, it inspired men to endure. Where Poppies Blow is the unique story of how nature gave the British soldiers of the Great War a reason to fight, and the will to go on.
This was a book that started good and then just got better and better. Basically 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 the soldiers, either in letters, poems, booklets, newspaper articles, even illustrations.
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, as well as 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.”
But he also brings us down to earth with the horrendous accounts of infestations of lice and rats in the trenches; the massacres of horses and mules; even the bacteria and viruses that brought death.
It’s such a wonderful book that I am tempted to forget a certain unease I felt, which is that 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, I learned a lot, and ended up with even more respect for these mostly young men who lived and died in such an appalling war.