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Brightening Trench Warfare: How Soldiers Found Comfort in Nature During WWI

Elisabeth Edwards
Photo Credit: Art Media / Print Collector / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Art Media / Print Collector / Getty Images

The conditions during the First World War were often depicted as bleak, desolate and filthy. For many, life on the Western Front was unsanitary at best. Even though the world seemed to be decaying all around them, soldiers were able to find comfort in the nature that was around them. Many men took up botany and birdwatching, picked wildflowers, and created art inspired by poppy fields and the scenic European landscapes that reminded them of home.

Wildflowers in a warzone

Life in the trenches was anything but natural. For weeks at a time, soldiers slept in small dugouts that were filled with water and populated by rats. That’s not to mention the instances of lice, trench foot, dysentery and other ailments that came with living in the rough environment of the Western Front.

A painting of a poppy field
“The Poppy Field” by George Hitchcock, 1915. (Photo Credit: Virtue & Company / Print Collector / Getty Images)

Making the trenches feel more like home was one way to keep morale high. In a letter home in 1915, Private R.C.S. Frost described the surprising juxtaposition of flowers and birds in the trenches:

“This trench of ours is a model in its own way, being fairly safe, and connected by good communication trenches. The Commanding Officer’s house of white sandbags is fitted with [a] window, curtains, and window box with pansies in it… It will show you how soldiers can adapt themselves to circumstances. At the back of our trench is ripening corn and plenty of wildflowers in bloom… We have also canaries in cages in the trench!”

French officers gathered around a table decorated with flowers
French officers dining in style in a trench near the Western Front. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

According to cultural historian Bethany Wyatt, Scottish Captain Andrew McCormick wrote home about a special evening tradition he’d introduced to those living with him in the trenches:

“Most folks who served in France learned to have a great appreciation of the wild flowers which did so much to brighten the arid wastes left in the trail of war. Each evening I used to bring in a different kind of wild flower – dandelions, cornflowers, poppies – to grace our evening meal.”

Defiant gardens

Gardening was another way for soldiers to escape the nightmarish reality of the trenches. Not only did gardening provide soldiers with more food, it was also a way to participate in normal activities that reminded them of home. Author Kenneth Helphand wrote in his book Defiant Gardens that these were an act of defiance that “exemplified the struggle to create something normal in the most abnormal conditions.”

French soldiers harvesting vegetables from a garden
French soldiers cultivating a kitchen garden near the Front in Champagne, France, 1916. (Photo Credit: Jacques Boyer / Roger Viollet / Getty Images)

Lt. Alfred Ashurst Morris took up gardening while on the Front. When he had to move to a new location along the line, he wrote in his journal about having to leave his garden. “I had finished our garden. Just as the seeds are starting, and the nasturtiums are really going fine,” he wrote. “Anyway, the fortune of war.”

Birds and botany

Another pastime of soldiers during the First World War revolved around the observation of the flora and fauna. Birdwatching and botany helped many men escape the death and destruction of the battlefield, and allowed them to focus on the living things that continued to thrive in the wake of the war.

Soldiers were also able to recognize familiar plants and animals that reminded them of home.

A French soldier holding an eagle owl while in the trenches
A French soldier with the 92th Infantry Regiment holding an eagle owl, 1916. (Photo Credit: adoc-photos / CORBIS / Getty Images)

The war provided ornithologists like Collingwood Ingram with the unique opportunity to study the behaviors of birds. Ingram interviewed hundreds of pilots who’d observed migratory birds and eventually published his findings on the migration patterns of certain birds observed in Gallipoli.

Ingram also observed how nature reacted to the environmental destruction of the war. In his diary, he wrote:

“The fresh splintered gashes in the trees, the crumbling brown earth of the shell craters and finally a row of khaki-clad corpses awaiting internment, all bore evidence of very recent strife. And yet this wood was still alive and sufficiently leafy to harbor a jay, and it certainly did not present that gaunt, blighted aspect of the woods of last year’s battlefields.”

Left: the desolated battlefield of Verdun in 1916. Right: Verdun today, with trees and grass covering the craters left from the war.
Then vs. Now: (L) French infantry facing a curtain of fire at Fort Vaux, Verdun, France, 1916. (R) An aerial view of Fort de Vaux, 2018. (Photo Credit: 1. Underwood Archives / Getty Images 2. Jean-Christophe Verhaegen / AFP / Getty Images)

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The violence and terror of World War I haunted many soldiers long after the Armistice. In spite of the death and loss they faced, they were able to find hope in the nature around them. Just as the broken trees regrew and the grass covered the craters and trenches, their own wounds – physical and emotional – would also heal with time.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

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