Where poppies blow


Melissa Harrison in The Financial Times reviews ‘Where Poppies Blow’:

What an interesting man John Lewis-Stempel is.

A farmer, nature writer and historian, he has written extensively on the British military and the First World War; he won the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright prize for Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field; and this year he published The Running Hare, a [ BBC] Radio 4 Book of the Week in May [2016]. Now he has combined his two great interests to produce a painstakingly researched and deeply moving account of the relationship between soldiers and Nature on the Western Front from 1914-18.

“One realised how close one was living to nature, closer perhaps than ever before, and the thought that possibly each dawn might be the last accentuated the delight,” wrote Private Norman Edwards of 6/Gloucestershire Regiment from Ploegsteert Wood, Flanders, in May 1915. “The dawns at this time were particularly beautiful. Before any definite light appeared, the larks would soar up and a faint twittering in the wood grew to a buzz of noise as the birds stood-to with us.”

Great numbers of those at the front were bird-lovers, and even those who were not had a much better working knowledge of birds (and of natural history in general) than most of us today. Combine that with boredom and a desperate need for respite and it’s no surprise that so many soldiers spent time bird-watching, egg-collecting, submitting ornithological articles and records and writing poems about birds – particularly the familiar and indomitable skylarks, which seemed so bravely to scorn the aerial hell of artillery.

Read more of Melissa Harrison’s review here:


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